Interlude: Decks That Weren’t

Posted in Building on a Budget on October 24, 2005

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

Maybe it's because of my recent paternity leave from work, but for some reason recently I'm playing a lot more Magic than can fit into this column. I find myself with a number of pet decks that I play in idle moments each day, tinkering with them all in parallel. It was always my intention to write an article showcasing my "spare time" decks, but then Ravnica: City of Guilds showed up and changed Standard all around. Now I find myself with some cool decks that have unwittingly stumbled into obsolescence.

As a result, this article is going to be a sort of bridge between the Standard of yesterday and the Standard of today. I'm still going to show you the decks I've been playing, but now my task is to sift through them and try to figure out how--if at all--they adapt to the arrival of Ravnica.

For each deck, I'll try to give a brief snapshot of how it's supposed to play when winning. After that, it's time to look at what each lost with Mirrodin Block's rotation out of Standard and what each potentially gains from Ravnica. My goal today is not to give you ready-made decks to go out and build, but instead to talk through some fun ideas you may not have considered, along with platforms for new decks of your own. As you should know by now, I'm also not talking about anything you should be considering for a serious tournament.

Ready? Let's get to it!

Deck 1: Blue Owl

Ebony Owl Netsuke
You have to go way back to my first Blood Clock article to uncover the origins of the Blue Owl. At the time, I brainstormed five rough-draft decks--one for each color--around Blood Clock. As you know, the Black deck won the vote and eventually turned into my Black/Green/Blue Thief of Time deck. For fun one week during the series of articles, I tried out the other four decks to see how they played. By far my favorite was the Blue one. The games were interesting and, even better, I won a surprising number of them even with the first-draft deck.

Standard made its first lurch with the arrival 9th Edition, and the first deck I updated from my old cache was the Blue Blood Clock deck. Adding cards from Mirrodin Block and 9th Edition really made the deck sing, and the deck became borderline good. The problem was that more and more rares were sneaking their way in, so I dropped the least effective one: Blood Clock. The result is a Monoblue deck that has lost its original inspiration and is now built almost solely around Ebony Owl Netsuke.

Blue Owl

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How the deck works

Games with Blue Owl are unlike most other Magic games I've played. The idea is to overload my opponent with cards while simultaneously limiting her ability to play those cards. It's sort of like Blue's version of a land destruction deck, but with lots of card drawing. On the first turn, I play Serum Visions or AEther Spellbomb and after that my job is to bounce everything my opponent places on the table. Boomerang, Eye of Nowhere, and Regress target lands while the Spellbomb, Crystal Shard, and Echoing Truth handle the rest. Thanks to Kami of the Crescent Moon, Howling Mine, and Mikokoro, Center of the Sea, I'm constantly refilling my hand with bounce. Eventually my opponent is discarding cards by the boatload while Ebony Owl Netsuke does its thing. By the sixth or seventh turn, it's usually clear whether my deck is humming or whether I'm going to lose badly.

The second and third turns are the most critical ones with this deck. If I'm going first and my opponent does nothing but play a land on Turn 1, an Ebony Owl Netsuke on my part will often allow me to win the game in five quick turns. If I'm going second, usually the better play is either a Kami/Mine or to bounce an opposing land. The choice of which to do is mostly dependent on my hand--If I have a lot of bounce then I start bouncing now; If I don't then I focus on drawing cards.

If my opponent can get enough land, the game gets a lot harder for this deck to win. As a result, bouncing a land (or more) each turn is important. I also target Mana-producing cards like Llanowar Elves and Fellwar Stone with bounce, as well as any expensive card that takes my opponent an entire turn to cast. If I handle the resources, the deck takes care of itself. This means that huge weak spots are against White Weenie decks and aggressive Green decks that can produce a lot of cheap threats. I've won against these decks, but it often requires a good start from me and a marginal start from them.

What the deck loses from Mirrodin

Although the total number of cards that Blue Owl loses to Mirrodin Block are high, none of them feel particularly devastating. The one I miss the most is Regress, since having twelve ways to bounce land is vital to the deck. AEther Spellbomb and Echoing Truth are both really solid bounce spells but replaceable. The great thing about the Spellbomb was that it gave me both a first-turn play and potential card-drawing in a pinch. Echoing Truth's stock would have gone up in the token-friendly environment of Ravnica, but if my deck is working I shouldn't see those hordes of tokens in the first place. Serum Visions is terrific, serving as a way to dig for meaningful cards cheaply, but Blue has lots of card-drawing available to it. Crystal Shard, frankly, was a nice-to-have card but never struck me as a cornerstone.

That said, the key card-drawers are still there. The win condition is intact. The best bounce (Boomerang and Eye of Nowhere) remain. If I can find enough bounce to fill what I lost, I feel fine about this deck's transition.

What the deck gains from Ravnica:

Unfortunately, I'm not thrilled with what Ravnica has to offer this deck. I suppose that Mark of Eviction is decent as a replacement for AEther Spellbomb. Peel from Reality is awful given that I am only relying on one creature in the deck and it's a creature I want to stay on the table. Vedalken Dismisser simply costs too much, and I would be better off with Kiri-Onna if I needed a bad Man-o'-War. After that, most of Ravnica's Blue cards slant towards House Dimir, a guild much more interested in milling an opponent to death than bouncing her permanents. Maybe Phantom Wings can come back into the deck as more creature bounce, but I would prefer something more reliable.

Clutch of the Undercity
The only gem in Ravnica is Clutch of the Undercity. Although it costs one more mana (and to boot), it's more than a worthy replacement for Regress. Not only is it instant-speed, but it helps supply some extra damage to support Ebony Owl Netsuke. The transmute cost is lost on this deck, but that's fine since the card's effect is exactly what I want to use. The only problem with Clutch, of course, is that it involves splashing a second color. If I had access to Underground River and Watery Grave, I wouldn't mind at all. Without these cards, splashing Black becomes dicey at best.

Three other cards I think might fit into the deck are Lore Broker, Remand, and Telling Time. If I squint, Lore Broker is sort of like a non-legendary Mikokoro with legs. Telling Time is worth considering as a replacement to Serum Visions, though it makes the first turn empty and crowds the second turn. Finally, Remand is a viable option if I end up patching the deck with low-end counterspells like Mana Leak.

The Verdict:

It feels a little too soon to reincarnate Blue Owl. I have a feeling that once we've seen Guildpact, Dissension, and the other three Blue-based guilds that enough pieces will fall into place to make a resource-denial strategy viable. Right now the cards seem one power level too low to be effective, even as a casual deck. File the idea away, though, because Ebony Owl Netsuke, Kami of the Crescent Moon, Howling Mine, Boomerang, and Eye of Nowhere are going to be part of Standard for a long time.

Deck 2: Lands Gone Wild

As soon as I dropped Wildfire from my Black/Red 9th Edition deck, I felt a burning (heh) desire to make a deck around it. Black/Red didn't feel like the right color combination, so instead I turned to Green/Red. My original deck was straightforward enough, relying on Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama's Reach, and such to give me way more land than an opponent and thus allow me to recover more quickly from Wildfire. The deck was pretty boring, though, and too much like a basic land destruction deck. I then turned to goofier strategies to spice it up. Over time, I added enough off-beat cards to come up with this deck...

Lands Gone Wild

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How the deck works

This deck is essentially a Green/Red control deck. Wildfire is there to do what Wildfire does best: Sweep the board of creatures and cripple an opponent's land base. Creeping Mold and Reap and Sow help out the land destruction theme, although just as often the Mold kills a non-land or Reap fetches a nonbasic land for me. Just as with my original idea, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama's Reach, and Summer Bloom are there to speed up my land base. Some of the newer bits are Stalking Stones and Gods' Eye, Gate to the Reikai, which are there to give me creatures after a big Wildfire. Indeed the lands are my only real win condition.

Crucible of Worlds
Lands? Win condition? Crucible of Worlds has muscled its way into the feature card slot alongside Wildfire. With a Crucible on the table, I can recover from Wildfire much easier than my opponent, play two Gods' Eyes turn after turn to give me tokens, make my Stalking Stones nigh indestructible, and turn Arcane Spyglass into a card-drawing (or token-creating) machine. Reclaim mostly helps me play Wildfire or Creeping Mold a second time, or just nabs a lost Crucible.

No game ends quickly with this deck. Usually I'll win by concession when my opponent has no land on the table and I'm rebuilding quickly (try playing Summer Bloom with Crucible of Worlds on the table after a Wildfire... great fun!). When I'm forced to earn my win, I do so via 3/3 lands and a steady stream of 1/1 Spirit tokens. I've been called "crazy," "warped," and "demented" by spectators for creating this deck, but even my opponents can't help but smile when the deck is working. There are lots of small interactions between the cards that make everything hang together well.

What the deck loses from Mirrodin

Ouch. Unfortunately, most of the quirky cards that made the deck fun are gone. Crucible of Worlds is the biggie, of course. It's no fun losing a feature card from a deck, especially one with a unique effect. Stalking Stones was one of the only ways for me to actually kill an opponent. Arcane Spyglass is also a surprisingly big loss for the deck, since it not only helped muscle through the deck via card-drawing but also helped speed along my winning through Gods' Eye tokens. Reap and Sow isn't a huge loss, frankly, although searching for a Stalking Stones or Gods' Eye while killing an opposing land always tasted sweet.

So, I'm left with Wildfire, terrific mana-acceleration, Gods' Eye, Gate to the Reikai, and Creeping Mold. Is this enough of a skeleton to build around?

What the deck gains from Ravnica

Vinelasher Kudzu
I see three viable rare replacements to partner with Wildfire for an interesting deck. The obvious (read: expensive) one is Vinelasher Kudzu, which will get huge in a deck like mine and will almost certainly survive a Wildfire. I think a Kudzu-Wildfire deck makes loads of sense. Hunted Troll is another idea, though it might backfire. The good news is that the Troll survives Wildfire whereas the Faerie tokens do not. If I went the Hunted Troll route, I think Pyroclasm would almost certainly show up in my deck.

A card that is much more in line with my original plan, however, is Life from the Loam. It isn't a perfect substitute for Crucible of Worlds, but it's along the same trajectory. Couple this with Reclaim and Recollect, and I think I may have something. The Gods' Eye plan is still there, along with the quick recovery from Wildfire. The more I think about it, the more enamored with Life from the Loam I become. The deck remains a slow, grind-it-out-with-land control deck with a lot of the same interactions.

Lots of cards from Ravnica make sense in the deck. Carven Caryatid survives Wildfire and gives some much needed defense, for example. Civic Wayfinder and Barbarian Riftcutter make a nice one-two punch, especially if the deck is going to stock up on graveyard reanimation. Probably my favorite addition beyond Life from the Loam is Stoneshaker Shaman, which seems flat-out terrific for a deck like mine. Yes, these creatures die to Wildfire, but then again my new plan would rely heavily on regrowing my graveyard.

The deck needs a win condition to replace Stalking Stones, whether I use more fragile creatures or not. If Vinelasher Kudzu and Hunted Troll aren't it, I think Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree is an excellent idea. Unlike the previous deck, splashing an off-color is easy given all of my Green mana-fixers. I choose Vitu-Ghazi over Svogthos, the Restless Tomb simply because I don't think many creatures are likely to end up in my graveyard and/or stay there.

The Verdict

Although the deck has lost some key ingredients, I think enough options exist in Ravnica to breathe new life into my land-based Wildfire deck. It won't play exactly the same, of course, but with Life from the Loam I can imagine the deck to be a fair reproduction. I'll at least try it in my idle time and get back to you with the results.

Deck 3: Su Casa

Remember The Zed? He and I have kept in touch. One day he found me online and asked to help him think through an Eternal Dominion deck he planned on taking to a Friday Night Magic. I took his deck, played it for several days, made some changes, and eventually landed on a decklist I liked.

Zed took a deck that was slightly different and got decimated at FNM. Even though his deck was pretty different from mine and he owned up to a lot of play mistakes, I think it's important to warn you of his fate. Anyway, here's the decklist I ended up liking through my playtesting:

Su Casa

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How the deck works

Eternal Dominion
The games with this deck come in two halves. In the first half, I'm playing a combo deck. I do care a little about what my opponent is doing on her side of the table thanks to my Quicksands and eight counterspells, but mostly I'm trying to dig through my deck in order to "go off." Going off in this case means a) finding a copy of Eternal Dominion, and b) having the mana to cast it. The usual way I achieve (a) is through spinning Sensei's Divining Top, scry, and Thirst for Knowledge. The usual way I achieve (b) is through Krark-Clan Ironworks. This was Zed's original idea and it works beautifully. Thanks to the Ironworks, I've cast a Turn 4 Eternal Dominion several times. I have no hesitation about sacrificing my Tops, Ingots, Baubles, or even Steel Walls if I can successfully cast a Dominion.

After Eternal Dominion has resolved, it's time for the second half of the game. In this half, I can no longer cast anything except one of my opponent's best spells each turn. Quicksand and Stalking Stones help me cheat the epic rule a little. If I have any Fellwar Stones or Darksteel Ingots around, they can help me with activated abilities of things like Arc-Slogger or Eight-and-a-Half-Tails.

This second half of the game is strategically really difficult. It's often hard to decide which card is going to most slant the game in my favor, especially knowing it's my only non-land card of the turn. It's difficult to know when to focus on defense versus offense. Weenie decks with no real game-altering creatures are probably the toughest to win, but each deck has its own challenges. On the plus side, every game with this deck is different, and it's an incredibly fun challenge to win with my opponent's cards.

What the deck loses from Mirrodin

Krark-Clan Ironworks
I'm not going to lie, the deck hinges on Krark-Clan Ironworks. Without it, Blue's only hope of massive mana-acceleration involves the Urza cycle of lands in 9th Edition. This is a fine strategy, but it's a lot less explosive than the Ironworks and isn't ever going to result in a fourth-turn Eternal Dominion. The combolicious first half of the game evaporates without Krark-Clan Ironworks, which means any deck post-Ravnica is going to need an entirely different strategy.

The other losses are severe, but not quite as devastating. Apart from the Ironworks, the two hardest cards to lose are Wayfarer's Bauble and Steel Wall. Stalking Stones is again gone, which is probably just as well if the deck is using Quicksand and the Urza lands to power out a spell. Darksteel Ingot is out, but Fellwar Stone was better anyway. Condescend and Thirst for Knowledge are both terrific diggers, but Blue has lots of ways to sift through my library. All of these losses are tough, but none so tough as losing the primary mana engine of a very mana-hungry deck.

What the deck gains from Ravnica

The relatively minor stuff can be replaced. Either Compulsive Research or Telling Time fits in Thirst for Knowledge's spot, never mind things like Sift in 9th Edition. Remand isn't quite as sexy as Condescend but would probably do in a pinch. Lurking Informant might be a non-counter way to search for Eternal Dominion, and I wouldn't be surprised if a Tunnel Vision or two made its way into the deck.

Unfortunately, there is no replacement for Krark-Clan Ironworks. The Signets are fine. Spectral Searchlight is a fair proxy for Darksteel Ingot. Terrarion is an okay boost for the deck, but otherwise I think the Monoblue answer is to focus on defense. Drift of Phantasms and Junktroller are some worthy defenders, with the latter serving as a way to keep myself from running out of cards if the game goes long. Minamo Scrollkeeper also probably makes sense from Saviors of Kamigawa. Even with the defense, the deck starts to feel like Urza lands or bust.

If I can figure out the mana, I think the other big question is what place, if any, Eye of the Storm has for my deck. Adding Eye changes the focus quite a bit, of course, but I'm interested if a "Big Blue" deck using expensive spells like Eternal Dominion and Eye of the Storm has a shot at survival in the new world of Standard.

The Verdict

It's a different deck without Krark-Clan Ironworks, plain and simple. It's also not nearly as fast. Without Ironworks, the deck is less about combo to get out Eternal Dominion and more about generating as much mana through conventional means as possible while staying alive. The Urza lands, as I've said several times, seem to be the only real means of explosive mana open to Blue, and without the Ironworks the deck loses its reliance on artifacts. Thus any new Eternal Dominion deck is either going to play very defensively in the early game or is going to add Green for its explosive mana. Neither feels like Su Casa reincarnated so much as a way of making a viable Eternal Dominion deck. This deck is the one deck today devastated by the new Standard.

Deck 4: Switcharoo

Although it's my most recent creation, I honestly can't remember the genesis of my fourth and final deck. I think what happened was that I was being amused by the fact that Dancing Scimitar and Ensouled Scimitar were both Standard legal, and noting that one equipped with the other gave me a 2/10 flier (no, I'm not sure quite how to imagine a sword wielding a sword either). I probably then remembered that Mannichi, the Fevered Dream was a creature I wanted to build a deck around at some point. That was probably the root, and the cards flowed from there.


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How the deck works

Mannichi, the Fevered Dream
This deck plays one of two ways. The first way is that it sits back on defense with all of its high-toughness creatures, sometimes clearing away small threats with Pyroclasm and sometimes blasting equipment with Manriki-Gusari. When my opponent's deck has run out of steam and I've found either Mannichi or Myr Quadropod to go along with either Shinen of Life's Roar or Elvish Bard, then I attack and end the game in one or two mighty swings. I think of this as my "combo" style of play.

The second way the deck can play is to get a quick Shinen of Life's Roar equipped with Manriki-Gusari and/or Ensouled Scimitar and attack, attack, attack until my opponent is out of creatures. This works as a midgame strategy with Elvish Bard, too. In these games, my Lure-creatures are acting as creature removal while my other creatures kill my opponent unhindered. I think of this as my "aggro" style of play.

In either case, there are two important elements to the deck: 1) My power-toughness switching cards (Mannichi, the Fevered Dream and Myr Quadropod), and b) my Lure cards (Shinen of Life's Roar and Elvish Bard). Everything else that the deck can do rests on these pillars.

Although bizarre, it's actually the least tricky of the decks today. My opponent can often quickly see what I'm up to and how I intend to win. Whether they can stop me, though, is an entirely different matter. A surprising number of decks are flummoxed by my high-toughness cards with the ability to become high-power cards at instant speed. Even decks loaded with creature removal tend to either have a hard time with five or high toughness or are vulnerable to an Ensouled Scimitar. The fact that Dancing Scimitar is now a Spirit has stopped a number of Rend Fleshes cold. This is not to say that the deck is unstoppable, only that it wins a lot more than you would guess from the wonky cards I've included.

What the deck loses from Mirrodin

Although the Lure side of the deck is untouched, the Mannichi side of the deck suffers two big losses. The first is Myr Quadropod. Without the Quadropod, the deck is entirely reliant on Mannichi to combo-kill a player or to make the other cards in the deck scary. The entire deck sort of relies on the fact that I have eight "switcharoo" cards, and with half as many I think I'll either need to insert card-drawing or bend the focus a little.

The second big loss is Ensouled Scimitar. This one isn't quite so traumatic, but it has been good versus Wrath of God or as a way to make my Lure creatures unstoppable. Slagwurm Armor is gone, too, so the super-toughness equipment in general is now pretty much gone. Again, having eight ways to enhance Shinen of Life's Roar and Elvish Bard is a lot more effective than four.

Still, that's only two cards lost from a pretty straightforward deck. Mannichi, the Fevered Dream is still there, along with Shinen, Elvish Bard, Dancing Scimitar, Manriki-Gusari, Pyroclasm, and the omnipresent Sakura-Tribe Elder. Surely Ravnica can offer up some way to patch eight card slots in a sixty card deck, right?

What the deck gains from Ravnica

Gaze of the Gorgon
The card that truly makes me smile is Gaze of the Gorgon. The Gaze doesn't naturally replace either of the two cards that leave the deck, but it's a fun trick with Lure creatures and a bunch of high-toughness dudes. I think it's possible to add Gaze of the Gorgon and Selesnya Sagittars (splashing a third color is once again easy thanks to the wonders of Green) and see what happens. It would feel slanted towards Lure and away from Mannichi, but I still think it might be a fun deck.

Speaking of splashing a third color, I think I could add a Plains or two to either reap the full benefits of Boros Guildmage or try Guardian of Vitu-Ghazi. Neither thrills me in the same way Myr Quadropod and Ensouled Scimitar do, but they might be serviceable to keep the deck intact. If White is in the deck, Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion is worth a try.

Goblin Fire Fiend? That feels sort of lame, but it emphasizes the Lure part of the deck. After that, I'm coming up empty. No equipment exists in Ravnica to pump a creature's toughness significantly, nor are there any power/toughness switching cards, nor are there any artifacts that animate to survive board-sweeping spells. Thus if the deck continues in the new Standard, it's going to take on an entirely new twist.

The Verdict

Switcharoo feels a lot like Blue Owl. The pieces are sort of there, but they don't quite come together in a way that feels right. Just like with Blue Owl, I'm guessing that if I wait a set or two that some Green, Red, Green/Red (hello... Gruul Clans!), or artifact cards will add just enough spice to pick Mannichi off the ground and allow this deck its resurrection. It seems silly to wait when the deck lost so relatively few cards, but for now I'm putting this deck on the sidelines to be picked up again later.

So, the final verdict? One deck translates into the new Standard, two decks may rise again eventually, and one deck is outright dead. I think I've run the full gamut for what happens to pet decks when a format changes. As I said from the outset, I hope today's article has been a fun mental bridge as you get ready for Ravnica's online release, and one that's given you some new ideas to ponder.

To Ravnica, and Beyond!

When I decided to emphasize a minor theme in one of my preconstructed deck evolutions because I was getting tired of straightforward aggressive decks, the result was Ratimation. You'll also recall that I deliberately chose non-aggro cards in the poll that fueled my Blood Clock deck. These were small corrections I made to ensure some variety in this column.

Well, it's time for another tweak. Through polls you all have consistently been choosing the way of Black. It started with Dark Devotion and has flowed all the way through my Mirage Preconstructed deck. In all, five of the last six decks (counting the Mirage deck) have included Black. You've also managed to avoid White since my very first Samurai deck.

Since the "Please! Not another Black deck!" voices have risen to crescendo, I'm going to include an abbreviated poll to kick off my first Ravnica: City of Guilds preconstructed deck experiment. For the next three weeks I'll be evolving a Ravnica precon, but I'm only giving you two choices. Pick the Boros Legion deck or pick the Selesnya Conclave deck. No matter what, there will be no Black in sight and I'm guaranteed a White deck. Wheee!

Poll: Which deck with Jay evolve next?Charge of the BorosSelesnya United

My early money is on the Boros since people seem to love their White Weenie decks, but maybe you'll surprise me. I'm happy either way.

Think hard and have fun,


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