Last week, I chose decks representative of the twelve deck archetypes that were built on the forums, and chose a winner—DELangley's Gruntcursion deck.
As you may have noticed, this series has changed from (Part X of 2) to (Part X of 3). Originally I had intended to go straight into playtesting with DELangley's deck, with a brief introduction about the deck choices made for his initial build. However, after writing part of the introduction, I found a very rich lesson about how even the smallest cards choices can have a large impact on the performance of your deck.
One of the challenges of deckbuilding is being able to choose the best card for your deck when presented with choices that have minor variances. For instance, let's say you're playing mono-black control and want a generic single-target kill spell for your deck – something that can be used to take out opposing creatures in a pinch. In Standard (including Ninth Edition, not including Tenth Edition—Tenth Edition isn't legal online for another couple of weeks!), these would be your choices:
Standard's Big Black Removal Suite
Assassinate (3cmc, can only hit tapped creatures)
Big Game Hunter (3cmc, can be madnessed for , can only hit 4+ power creatures, you get a 1/1 creature.)
Brainspoil (5cmc, can't hit enchanted creatures, can be transmuted, killed creature can't be regenerated, double-Black mana cost.)
Chill to the Bone (4cmc, instant speed, can't hit snow creatures.)
Cradle to Grave (2cmc, instant speed, can only kill creatures the turn they come into play.)
Dark Banishing (3cmc, instant speed, can't kill black creatures, killed creature can't be regenerated.)
Dark Withering (6cmc, instant speed, can't kill black creatures, can be madnessed for , double black mana cost.)
Death Rattle (6cmc, instant speed, can't kill green creatures, killed creature can't be regenerated, can have mana cost reduced through delve.)
Deathmark (1cmc, can only kill green or white creatures.)
Disembowel (X+1cmc, instant speed, costs X+1 mana to kill a creature, where X is that creature's mana cost.)
Execute (3cmc, instant speed, can only kill white creatures, cantrip.)
Garza's Assassin (3cmc, instant speed, can be reused for the cost of half your life, triple-black mana cost, you get a 2/2 creature.)
Gaze of the Gorgon (4cmc, instant speed, can only be used if your creature blocked or was blocked, regenerates your creature in addition to killing your opponent's creature.)
Grave Peril (2cmc, enchantment, kills the first non-black creature that comes into play – whether it's yours or not.)
Krovikan Rot (3cmc, instant speed, only kills creatures with power 2 or less, can be returned to your hand for .)
Nekrataal (4cmc, only kills non-black, non-artifact creatures, killed creature can't be regenerated, double-black mana cost, you get a 2/1 first-striking creature.)
Orzhov Euthanist (3cmc, can only kill creatures that have taken damage, has haunt, you get a 2/2 creature.)
Phthisis (7cmc, quadruple-black mana cost, can Suspend—5 for , causes loss of life equal to a creature's combined power and toughness when it kills a creature.)
Premature Burial (2cmc, can only kill non-Black creatures, can only kill creatures that have been around a full turn already.)
Seal of Doom (3cmc, enchantment, can't kill black creatures, killed creature can't be regenerated.)
Seize the Soul (4cmc, instant speed, can kill white or black creatures, has haunt, you get a 1/1 white flyer when you kill a creature with Seize the Soul or when the creature haunted by Seize the Soul dies, double-black mana cost.)
Slaughter Pact (0cmc, instant speed, can't kill black creatures, must pay your next upkeep or you lose the game.)
Slay (3cmc, instant speed, can only kill green creatures, cantrip.)
Stinkweed Imp (3cmc, can only kill creatures that it deals combat damage to, you get a 1/2 flyer, it has dredge 5.)
Strangling Soot (3cmc, instant speed, can only kill creatures with toughness 3 or less, can be used with flashback for R5.)
That is 26 distinct mono-black ways to kill a single target creature—and this does not count reusable cards such as Royal Assassin, or cards that kill multiple creatures at once such as Damnation. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages. Let's look at three of the most similar cards:
Dark Banishing vs. Slaughter Pact vs. Seal of Doom
All three of these spells cost a black and two and can kill nonblack creatures. Dark Banishing and Seal of Doom stop that creature from regenerating—Slaughter Pact does not. Dark Banishing must be played for the turn you want to play it – Slaughter Pact can be played for and paid for the next turn, and Seal of Doom can be played in advance and then used at instant speed. Seal of Doom can be removed by a Disenchant—Slaughter Pact and Dark Banishing cannot. You can play Slaughter Pact while tapped out, but you cannot choose to pay for it up front—you must pay for it the following turn.
In short, Dark Banishing, Seal of Doom and Slaughter Pact are extremely similar, but can have very different applications in play. You can lose the game outright to Exhaustion if you are playing Slaughter Pact—the same cannot be said for Dark Banishing and Seal of Doom. Naturalize can counteract Seal of Doom (if it is played to the board before there's a creature you want to kill), whereas Dark Banishing and Slaughter Pact suffer no such drawbacks. Slaughter Pact can't easily kill Hedge Troll, whereas it can kill a Groundbreaker that is aimed at your head as a surprise attacker while you are tapped out. Each of the three cards has drawbacks and advantages over the other two, and the best way to find out which is the best to use is through playtesting, and knowing your metagame. If you're expecting a lot of enchantment removal, don't play Seal of Doom. If you're expecting land destruction or mana denial, don't play Seal of Doom. If you're expecting hand destruction or are playing a tight curve that can't afford to miss a drop, don't play Dark Banishing.
Gruntcursion: The Choices
There were quite a few redundant cards on my original list of cards for the dredge deckbuilding challenge. While some were unique (there's nothing comparable to Bridge from Below, for instance), most of the cards could be replaced by other cards on the list to achieve a similar, yet distinct, result. Let's scrutinize the choices made by DELangly and see where changes might have been made—and if they are worth making!
Both Reclaim and Vampiric Tutor are instants, but both are negative card advantage—you spend a card to put a card on top of your library, which leaves you with a net of negative one cards. The tradeoff for this is that you will draw the cards you want the following turn.
Both Recollect and Diabolic Tutor are sorceries. Both trade themselves to bring a card into your hand—Recollect for a card in your graveyard, and Diabolic Tutor for a card in your deck. Each leaves you with card parity—you lose a card in your hand (Recollect/Diabolic Tutor) and end up with a card in hand (the one returned from your graveyard/gotten from your deck). The penalty, compared to Reclaim and Vampiric Tutor, is additional mana cost and slower (sorcery versus instant) speed.
I specifically chose a comparison to Vampiric Tutor and Diabolic Tutor because for a deck that is planning to dump most or all of its cards into the graveyard, Reclaim and Recollect function extremely similarly to the black tutors. They are worse in the early game, but they are great once you get your dredge going.
Is using Reclaim worth the loss of a card, but the net of two mana and sorcery speed over using Recollect? Initially I would say no—your first few turns are going to be spent dredging, or using Life from the Loam to build up your mana base. By the time you get to the point where you want to start recurring cards from your graveyard with a single-target spell, I think that you can spare the extra two mana for Recollect. If you play Reclaim during your opponent's turn, you literally have no way to get that card from the top of your library to your hand before the start of your next turn.
This would not be the case, however, if you were running any card that could allow you to draw a card at instant speed. I took at look at my original card list, and I found five different cards which allow instant-speed card drawing—Edge of Autumn, Fa'adiyah Seer, Magus of the Library, Street Wraith, and Horizon Canopy. Let's discount Fa'adiyah Seer (as you probably won't want to Reclaim a land) and Magus of the Library (too conditional). This leaves Edge of Autumn, Street Wraith and Horizon Canopy as the choices to go with Reclaim to allow an emergency card-draw (for instance, if you need to draw Mortify or Putrefy immediately against a hasted attacker).
And doesn't Street Wraith plus Reclaim remind you of an aforementioned tutor that is restricted in Vintage and banned in Legacy for being too powerful? Street Wraith brings you closer to threshold, allows for an emergency dredge (pay 2 life: Dredge), and puts another creature into your graveyard. This matters because of...
Both of these guys have power and toughness equal to the number of creature cards in graveyards and both regenerate. If you took away the dredge ability from Golgari Grave-Troll, Mortivore would be clearly superior in almost every way—it costs one mana less, it counts creatures in both graveyards (Golgari Grave-Troll only counts creatures in your graveyard), it gets bigger as more creatures go to graveyards (Golgari Grave-Troll has a fixed power/toughness once it enters play), and it doesn't get smaller each time it regenerates.
It's a good thing that Golgari Grave-Troll has dredge, then, isn't it? Not only does Golgari Grave-Troll have dredge, but it is king-daddy dredge. There is no other card in Magic which dredges for more cards at once (six) than the Grave-Troll. It is also easier to play and regenerate than Mortivore—it only costs a single Green mana to play the Grave-Troll and any color of mana can be used to regenerate it. On the other hand, Mortivore costs double-black to play, and a third black to regenerate—meaning that against many decks, you want to have the turn you play Mortivore, so it doesn't immediately meet with a burn spell or a Mortify without regeneration mana up. It is very difficult for this deck to get triple-black mana early.
How badly does this deck need the Troll as a dredge outlet? Pretty badly, I'd say—there are only thirteen dredge cards in this deck, and four of them (Dakmor Salvage) only dredge for two and will probably be played as lands most of the time (since outside of the Salvages, this deck only sports four sources of black mana—one Orzhov Basilica and three Swamps). I do believe there is a place for Mortivore—it has much synergy with the dredge theme, and Korlash has proven that there's a place for huge four-mana black regenerating creatures in competitive play. The mana restrictions on Mortivore, and our lack of dredge cards, lead me to the following:
As written, this deck contains nineteen black cards and eight sources of black mana. While Greenseeker can be a mana-fixer, chances are this deck is going to run into mana issues sooner than later. Dread Return costs double-black to hardcast, Mortivore double-to-triple black (see the regeneration argument, above), and four of the lands that produce black mana in this deck either come into play tapped, or you want in your graveyard so you can dredge.
I think that Gruntcursion is a deck that has a lot of interesting ideas going on, but if it has one glaring weakness going into the start of playtesting, it's the mana base. Three Plains, two Selesnya Sanctuary, and an Orzhov Basilica are about enough mana to support twelve white cards, given that you will want to play most of the white cards in this deck no sooner than the third turn (Mortify, Putrefy, Jötun Grunt, Mystic Enforcer). You don't need to have a Plains in your opening hand to get going. You do need a Forest to start working magic with Greenseeker, and you need Swamps not only to cast the majority of the spells in your deck, but also to return Nether Traitor from your graveyard to play, and to regenerate Mortivore.
Speaking of mana problems casting Dread Return, can you reliably flashback Dread Return with this deck? There are twenty-three creatures in this deck. Seven of them are the creatures you want to bring back with Dread Return (Mortivore, Golgari Grave-Troll and Mystic Enforcer), so you aren't likely to want to sacrifice them to use Dread Return out of your graveyard, unless they are debilitated by enchantments (Faith's Fetters, Pillory of the Sleepless, etc.)
This leaves sixteen creatures left to flashback Dread Return, and most of them are decent enough targets—Jötun Grunt can die before upkeep is paid, so throwing it to a Dread Return anyhow seems like a good idea. Nether Spirit will come back later (or you can bring back Nether Spirits if they are dead when you Dread Return), and Greenseeker is fodder past the first few turns of the game. You don't have any efficient ways to kill your own Golgari Thug outside of sacrificing it to Dread Return (do you really want to Mortify your own Thug?), so he can go away for the greater good as well.
The argument between Zombify and Dread Return comes down to the ability to hard-cast either spell. Right now, with only four non-Salvage black sources in this deck, it is virtually impossible to hard-cast Dread Return in any given game. Zombify, at a single black mana, is entirely doable. Outside of the Black versus double-Black cost, Dread Return is superior to Zombify in every way. It is difficult to give Dread Return the nod, though, if every time you draw it, you are taking an effective mulligan for that game versus being able to cast and use Zombify. To have Dread Return work, you'd need to either up the creature count, up the ways to make creatures, or add more black mana sources to the deck.
Greenseeker and Llanowar Mentor are the best options for getting a dredge card straight to your graveyard as soon as humanly possibly in Standard. Both allow for a turn-two dredge—play either one on the first turn, activate it on your second turn's upkeep (before your draw) pitching a dredge card, and then dredge on your draw step. For that use, Greenseeker and Llanowar Mentor are identical.
The results of activation are what set these two one-drops apart. Greenseeker trades a card in hand for a basic land from your deck—a one-for-one swap. You lose a card, you gain a card and mana-fix at the same time. Llanowar Mentor trades a card for a Llanowar Elves—you lose a card, but gain a Llanowar Elves. The question is this: Is it better to have a smooth mana base (Greenseeker) or to have a 1/1 creature and mana acceleration (Llanowar Mentor)?
In the interest of cards like Dread Return, Llanowar Mentor is a better choice. One Llanowar Mentor can make up an entire Dread Return flashback—especially if you discard Dread Return to make one of the Llanowar Elf tokens! Llanowar Mentor also gives you creatures that, when they die, can bring back Nether Traitor (remember, token creatures go to the graveyard and then are immediately removed from the game. They will still trigger "goes to the graveyard" effects.)
In the interest of the varied mana-base of this deck, and the color problems it seems like it may have, Greenseeker is very important. Greenseeker also helps you thin out your deck (for whatever that's worth), and can let you shuffle your deck (in case you have a need to shuffle your deck).
This deck is light on ways to get dredge cards into the graveyard from your hand—you can play Greenseeker, chump block/suicide attack with our Golgari Thug, hard-cast Golgari Grave-Troll and make it regenerate until it dies, or play Life From the Loam on turn two and start dredging it. Both Greenseeker and Llanowar Mentor have a place in this sort of deck, and it might be beneficial to run both of the cards side-by-side instead of using just one or the other. Redundancy in first-turn discard is paramount for this deck – regardless of whether you mana fix or mana accelerate, you want to be able to dump a dredge card into your graveyard on the second turn's upkeep if possible.
I have a great dislike for Golgari Thug. Its go-to-the-graveyard ability (put target creature card from your graveyard on top of your library) is not at all optional. Your opponent can take advantage of this and kill Golgari Thug at a time when you don't want to put a creature from your graveyard on top of your library, effectively setting you back a draw step. You are faced with a choice—draw a useless creature, or dredge the Thug (or another dredge card) and end up with a Thug (or another dredge card) in your hand instead of something new or useful.
Stinkweed Imp has overall more usefulness than Golgari Thug—it flies, it kills creatures, and it dredges for one more card. If you're looking for a card to be another part of the dredge engine, Stinkweed Imp gets +1 over Golgari Thug. This deck, as mentioned earlier, doesn't have easy ways to kill its own creatures, so it isn't even a matter of which (Thug versus Imp) you could play first—it's a matter of which dredges for more once it's in the graveyard, or which does more while in play. Stinkweep Imp is a clear winner on both of these counts.
These two cards both kill creatures. Putrefy doesn't allow the creature the ability to regenerate—Mortify does. Mortify kills enchantments, Putrefy kills artifacts. If your aim is to kill creatures with an off-chance of hitting something else, Putrefy is a better choice for your deck due to the "can't be regenerated" clause. If you're expecting an enchantment-heavy environment (Stormbind, Pandemonium, Faith's Fetters), Mortify is a better choice. If you expect to face a lot of artifacts (which aren't as common as enchantments in Standard right now, outside of Signets), Putrefy is a better choice. In a deck that plans on dumping its entire contents into the graveyard and then pick/choose what to grab back with Jötun Grunt and Reclaim (or potentially Recollect), having a couple of each seems like a great idea for versatility's sake.
Gruntcursion: The Additions
Man, that was a lot of shades of gray being discussed above! Just based on the cards mentioned above, we can start taking the deck in different directions. Do we want to focus more on putting creatures into play and Dread Return (add more black mana, switch to or add Llanowar Mentors), or fixing the mana base and going for a more toolbox oriented build (get Zombify in the deck or kill Dread Return entirely, consider swapping out Mortivores for a less color-intensive kill card)? Since the deck is built around Jötun Grunt recursion, do we want to focus more on the Reclaim/Recollect aspect and go for a more toolbox approach (a lot of one-ofs that can be gotten as the need arises?)
Let's take a look at a few of the cards that were allowed in this contest's card pool, and see what they might offer the Gruntcursion deck.
If we wanted to go the more creature-intensive Llanowar Mentor/Dread Return route, Plagued Rusalka is a shoo-in. I've already shown how powerful an engine Plagued Rusalka/Nether Traitor can be with the Little Big Black deck, so we know that the Rusalka plays well. It would be able to feed off of Llanowar Mentor tokens, it would give the deck an outlet to sacrifice creatures on command (important for Golgari Thug or Stinkweed Imp), and it would add another creature to the deck for Dread Return, Mortivore, and Golgari Grave-Troll.
Along the same lines, Moldervine Cloak would make a lot of sense if we push this to a more weenie-creature oriented build. Moldervine Cloak turns all of those 1/1 creatures into 4/4 threats, and Moldervine Cloak itself has dredge. It seems a better fit for the deck than Bitter Ordeal, which seems oddly out of place as a choice for Gruntcursion.
If we're looking for more dredge cards to add to the deck in place of Dakmor Salvage, I don't think we could go wrong with a copy or two of Nightmare Void. This deck doesn't have a way to proactively disable the opponent, so a singleton recurrable discard spell would fill a hole. If we want to push Gruntcursion towards a toolbox-type build (based more around a Reclaim/Recollect engine to compliment Jötun Grunt), having single copies of silver bullets is the way to go.
The same as Nightmare Void, except as a way to proactively kill opposing creatures. The current configuration runs three Putrefy and two Mortify as its way to kill creatures. If we decide to go full-out for a toolbox build, swapping out a Putrefy for a single Darkblast might not be a bad choice.
Street Wraith / Edge of Autumn
If the deck focuses more on feeding the graveyard, either for a toolbox or for making huge Mortivores or Golgari Grave-Trolls, Street Wraith is an excellent choice—for two life, you enable a dredge or draw a card, plus you get a creature into the graveyard. This makes it work very well with Reclaim, as mentioned in the Reclaim / Recollect section. Edge of Autumn would be best used if the deck retains Dakmor Salvage, because you can then play the Salvage early and use Edge of Autumn to get the Salvage into the graveyard. Edge of Autumn itself could be played early to help with mana-fixing, as we've already mentioned some problems with procuring black mana. Edge of Autumn fixes and accelerates early, and it plays well with Ravnica Block bouncelands.
Horizon Canopy is a whopping six tickets, so it'd be a really, really hard sell for a deck that is already at the 30-ticket cap. I wouldn't recommend it in multiples, but I absolutely have to wonder—as a singleton in a deck that can throw a lot of cards into the graveyard at once, how valuable is a land that can be sacrifice to enable a dredge, get yourself below three lands to cast Edge of Autumn, and that plays well with Life from the Loam? Life From the Loam was best used with the Onslaught cycling lands, so would it also play well with a land you cycle from on the board?
Gruntcursion: The Potential Paths
There are three distinct paths that the Gruntcursion deck can take—weenie Dredge, big creature dredge, or toolbox dredge. As it begins, DELangley's version of the deck is a great intersection between the three ideas—Nether Traitor and Greenseeker are part of the first, Mortivore, Mystic Enforcer, Dread Return, and Golgari-Grave Troll fit into the second, and the dredge mechanic in general, backed by Reclaim, Jötun Grunt Recursion, and Life from the Loam, make a toolbox viable.
Path #1: Weenie Dredge
Path #2: Big Creature Dredge
This build would focus more on Mystic Enforcer, Mortivore, and Golgari Grave-Troll. We would want to build more around acceleration, getting creatures into the graveyard quickly (to attain threshold or to make huge monsters), and for reanimation. Zombify would probably be better in this build than Dread Return due to a lack of the ability to flashback, but we'd also probably find room for Street Wraith (and possibly Edge of Autumn) to add creatures to the bin or to accelerate mana. Nether Traitor would have less of a role here, and Llanowar Mentor would seem a better choice than Greenseeker, if we had to choose one over the other (to enable a third-turn Mortivore or Mystic Enforcer).
Path #3: Toolbox Dredge
The main point of Gruntcursion was to dump your entire library into your graveyard, and then use Jötun Grunt to set up your draws for the rest of the game. In the spirit of the original build/intent of this deck, the Toolbox Dredge is the most pure build. The deck would kill off a lot of second, third and fourth copies of cards, and focus more on Reclaim, Recollect, and one-of silver bullets to allow it to handle a whole range of problems that might comes its way.
Deckbuilding is an inexact art, and one which requires constant tinkering, trial, and error. While nobody will build the perfect version of a deck on their first try, everyone should take a look at the choices made for their deck and ask "why am I choosing Card X over Card Y that has a similar, yet different, ability?" This is an extremely important exercise, because it allows you to take a step back and lets you see the forest for the trees. It may all look great on paper, but what happens when you shuffle up and play?
We'll find out next week, but now we have an idea of where we might be going depending on what our first few playtest decks show us. See you all in seven days!