The Joke's Still on You!

Posted in Building on a Budget on November 21, 2007

By Ben Bleiweiss

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Building on a Budget! Many of you may remember my shortly evolved deck "The Joke's On You!" from a couple of months back. This week's article continues the evolution of that deck, and takes it in unexpected directions.

Here's the version of the deck we last saw, right before Lorwyn block rotated in, and Ravnica block rotated out:

The Joke's on You 1

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The pre-Lorwyn version of the deck focused around the interaction of Vedalken Mastermind and Reality Acid. Vedalken Mastermind can return Reality Acid, instantly killing any permanent (previously) enchanted by Reality Acid. Dream Stalker and Boomerang provided additional ways to bounce Reality Acid, while Momentary Blink acted as a way to save creatures from opposing removal, or to recur Dream Stalker's effect.

Jester's Scepter
From the Ravnica quadrant of the world, Azorius Aethermage provided a way to draw cards—with so many bounce effects (the Mastermind, Azorius Chancery, Boomerang, Dream Stalker), it was easy to draw multiple cards. In addition, Drift of Phantasms gave the deck a way to tutor up one of (multiple) three-drop spells and an early defense against an offensive rush.

The preferred kill method was Jester's Scepter—once the game was locked down with Reality Acid / Vedalken Mastermind, I used Jester's Scepter to deck my opponent. The Scepter provided a five-card-a-turn decking, which could be increased significantly by using Vedalken Mastermind to replay Jester's Scepter multiple times a turn. Often, games would end in a two-turn flurry of a thirty-card decking.

I stopped evolving the initial version of the deck once Oblivion Ring was revealed. The original version of the deck needed Drift of Phantasms, because it was difficult to win without drawing a Reality Acid, and Drift allowed access to Acids numbers five through eight. Oblivion Ring itself acted as Reality Acids numbers five through eight with several advantages—it could stop non-land permanents without the need for bounce (useful in the early game, or if no bounce was to be found), and it removed cards from the game (versus sending them to the graveyard). On the flip side, the timing on using Oblivion Ring as a permanent solution is a bit dicey.

I've heard a smattering of complaints about my infrequent diversions into non-evolution based articles. To that I submit the following: in order to be the best deck builder possible, you have to understand more about Magic other than "what card do I put in a deck?" or "which cards is most powerful?" If all it took to win in Magic was a simple formula of "most powerful cards" in a deck, Magic would be a very boring game which came down to who went first or who is the absolute best technical player.

Last week's column focused on the theories and strategies behind building an aggressive weenie deck. This week's column is mostly a deck evolution, but it's also got a rules lesson. Why? Because having an optimal knowledge of the rules is essential to deck building, especially for a Johnny deck builder.

Let's take the interaction between Oblivion Ring and Vedalken Mastermind as the first example. The first ability on Oblivion Ring states: "When Oblivion Ring comes into play, remove another target nonland permanent from the game." This is an ability that goes on the stack—the words "when X comes into play" means that this is a triggered ability that triggers when the card it's on comes into play. The second ability on Oblivion Ring states: "When Oblivion Ring leaves play, return the removed card to play under its owner's control." The trigger, in this second case, is Oblivion Ring leaving play. This causes the effect (return the removed card to play) to go on the stack.

Ok, so we've got two triggered abilities, both which go on the stack—one when Oblivion Ring comes into play, and one when Oblivion Ring leaves play. For the sake of argument, let's say my opponent has a Scathe Zombies—a nice, generic 2/2 creature. When I play Oblivion Ring, I choose a target (in this case, Scathe Zombies), and the ability "Remove Scathe Zombies from the game" goes on the stack. Both me and my opponent have a chance to respond to the effect, and if there are no responses, it resolves, removing Scathe Zombies from the game. This is simple, expected, but also important in that playing Oblivion Ring itself does not remove the Scathe Zombies from the game—since it is a triggered effect, there is that opportunity for both me and my opponent to respond.

Oblivion Ring
Vedalken Mastermind

Now, let's say I have Vedalken Mastermind in play. We'll go through the same motions as above—my opponent has a Scathe Zombies, I play Oblivion Ring, and I target his Zombies with my enchantment. The "Remove Scathe Zombie from the game" ability goes on the stack, giving both me and my opponent a chance to respond. Here's where the tricky part comes in—I can now use Vedalken Mastermind to return Oblivion Ring to my hand, with the "remove from the game" ability still on the stack.

Effects resolve Last-In-First-Out (LIFO), meaning that the last ability played is the first one to resolve. I Play the Mastermind's ability on the Oblivion Ring, and that ability goes on the stack. Neither me nor my opponent have a response, so Oblivion Ring is returned to my hand. This sets off another trigger—since Oblivion Ring has left play, the ability "Return the removed card to play under its owner's control" goes on the stack. Again, both me and my opponent have a chance to respond. With no responses, the "return the card" ability resolves, and nothing happens! This is because the ability that would remove the Scathe Zombie from the game has not yet resolved (it is still on the stack), so there is not yet a card to return to play. However, when the first ability on the Oblivion Ring resolves (Remove Scathe Zombie from the game), the Scathe Zombies is removed, and is pretty much gone for good. Even if I play the Oblivion Ring later on, and return it to my hand, it is treated as a new, fresh copy of Oblivion Ring, and it and the Scathe Zombies have no memory of their tender, caring, removed-from-the-game brain-eating relationship.

This interaction makes Oblivion Ring a perfect complement to Vedalken Mastermind—with the two acting in concert, I can take out a nonland permanent a turn, just like with Reality Acid. Thankfully, Oblivion Ring isn't the only Lorwyn card to compliment Vedalken Mastermind. There is a whole subset of creatures that are just waiting to be abused in this deck.

Enter the evoke Elementals. These creatures can be played at a reduced mana cost with the drawback that "if you play this spell for its evoke cost, it's sacrificed when it comes into play." Notice a familiar wording? "If you do, it's sacrificed when it comes into play"—in other words, another trigger! If you play a Mulldrifter for (evoked), it comes into play, and sets up two triggers (since they happen simultaneously, you can choose which happens first)—"Draw two cards" and "Sacrifice Mulldrifter." Both abilities can be responded to, so if you use Vedalken Mastermind to return Mulldrifter to your hand, you still draw the two cards, but you don't sacrifice the not-in-play Mulldrifter (it is safely in your hand—you only sacrifice it if it's still a permanent, which it no longer is). For , you can draw two cards, and have the Mulldrifter to use again the following turn.

Even better is if you get a draw with Mulldrifter and Momentary Blink. At five mana, you can do some pretty tricksy things with the two. Let's say you play Mulldrifter for its evoke cost on turn five. Mulldrifter comes into play, and triggers two abilities: "Draw two cards" and "Sacrifice Mulldrifter." In response, you can play Momentary Blink on your Mulldrifter—remember, those two abilities are still on the stack. Momentary Blink would remove Mulldrifter from the game, and then return it immediately afterwards. This would trigger another ability, adding it to the stack: "Draw two cards." The "Sacrifice Mulldrifter" ability would not trigger again, because you did not pay the evoke cost to play the Mulldrifter—you simply paid (or , if it was flashed back) to "blink" the Mulldrifter.

When all of the abilities resolve, the following happens: You draw two cards, you draw two more cards, and the "Sacrifice Mulldrifter" ability resolves and does nothing, leaving you with the Mulldrifter in play. But wait—why don't you sacrifice the Mulldrifter (as it is clearly still in play) with the "Sacrifice Mulldrifter" ability resolving? It is because cards that leave play (however temporarily) "lose memory" of their previous existence (see Oblivion Ring above!), and are treated as new copies of that card. The "Sacrifice Mulldrifter" is looking for a Mulldrifter that, for all intents and purposes, doesn't exist anymore—it has been removed from the game, so the game doesn't associate the trigger with the new, blinked version of Mulldrifter.

In short, understanding how triggered abilities work (the rules) is essential to the deck I'm about to test. Without this understanding, one might look at this deck and not understand just how powerful the interactions between cards can be. The same goes for knowledge of the stack—The Joke's On You has gone from a pretty straightforward Reality Acid / bounce deck to a very complicated (yet extremely budget) stack-abusing monster.

Out: 4 Azorius Chancery, 3 Azorius Aethermage, 4 Drift of Phantasms, 2 Treasure Hunter, 4 Azorius Signet, 1 Ambassador Laquatus

In: 4 Prismatic Lens, 4 Oblivion Ring, 4 Boreal Shelf, 3 Mulldrifter, 3 Surgespanner

The Joke's on You 2

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The first changes to the deck were pretty straightforward, as per the discusson above—Oblivion Ring in for Drift of Phantasms, Boreal Shelf for Azorius Chancery, and Prismatic Lens for Azorius Signet. I've taken out two Treasure Hunter (which had virtually no targets in the old deck) and the Ambassador Laquatus (no longer tutorable as an alternate win condition with the removal of Drift of Phantasms) for three copies of Surgespanner—another bounce mechanism, but one that might be too fragile and too slow (2/2 for four, needs to attack to activate).

Game 1: Heneren (Blue-Black Megrim)

He gets down an early Megrim, but I remove it from the game with Oblivion Ring. He starts hitting me with Ravenous Rats, but I gain control of the game at 11 life. He plays Remove Soul on my first Vedalken Mastermind, and leaves two mana up the next turn. I have five mana, and a second Mastermind in hand. I also have Mulldrifter and Momentary Blink. I choose to play Mulldrifter with evoke. Heneren hasn't seen a Blink yet, but pauses to decide if he wants to let my Mulldrifter resolve. He does, and with both triggers on the stack (sacrifice / draw two cards), I play Momentary Blink on my flyer. He can no longer use Remove Soul on it (it's already in play, and is no longer a spell), so I end up drawing four cards and having a 2/2 flyer on the board. That is enough card advantage that I am able to force creatures through his countermagic, and use Jester's Scepters (multiple) to shut down the spells he attempts to cast (I counter Boomerang, Diabolic Tutor, and Magus of the Jar over the course of the rest of the game).

Record: 1-0

Game 2: dowaji (Black-Green Stuffy Doll / Sleeper Agent)

Not much happens until he drops an early Stuffy Doll. I use Oblivion Ring to get rid of us, and Jester's Scepter to see that he's also got Sleeper Agents in his deck. He kills my Scepter, and then uses Beacon of Unrest to get it back on his side. I play Vedalken Mastermind, and then use Oblivion Ring to remove Jester's Scepter from the game. After Oblivion Ring fully resolves, I return it to my hand, which gives me back control of Jester's Scepter. I end up decking him with triple Scepter, although he makes a last attempt to kill me by having double Birds of Paradise to block triple Sleeper Agent. However, I'm too high on life and he is forced to Damnation, leaving him not enough cards or time to win before decking.

Record: 2-0

Game 3: TokenTwister (Green-Red-Blue Slivers)

This is a really long game, involving him having Screeching Sliver, Virulent Sliver, Frenetic Sliver, Dormant Sliver, Firewake Sliver, Gemhide Sliver, Two-Headed Sliver and Telekinetic Sliver. We go back and forth for a long time, with me using Vedalken Mastermind plus Oblivion Ring to take out his Slivers one at a time. He uses Telekinetic Sliver to keep me from doing it twice a turn, but eventually I kill his Frenetic Sliver (so I can kill his Slivers with more than a 50% kill rate), and use Dream Stalker to shore up the ground. I come close to being decked (six cards left when I win), damaged to death (at 11 life, when he could have done 10 to me with a suicide attack with Firewake Sliver) or poisoned (two poison counters, but it could have gone up to eight on a suicide attack), but I finally grasp control of the game, remove most of his Slivers from the board, and deck him with triple applications of Jester's Scepter each turn.

Record: 3-0

So far, I'm very happy with the changes to the deck, except for the Surgespanners—every time I draw them, they are either too small to hit the board (for defense) or too mana-intensive versus just playing Oblivion Ring or Reality Acid plus Vedalken Mastermind. I take them out, and think about how I could improve the deck.

Mulldrifter interactions have been great so far, so I thought I would see if there were other evoke creatures worth running in the deck. There is one amazingly powerful evoke creature that is popping up everywhere—Shriekmaw. Shriekmaw would help immensely to plug one of the holes in this deck—weakness to an early creature rush. At worst, Shriekmaw is a sorcery-speed Terror. At best, he's a machine gun with Vedalken Mastermind / Momentary Blink, allowing me to shoot down multiple creatures for the cost of one to two spells.

The problem with adding Shriekmaw is that I'd also have to change the mana base of the deck to support three colors, rather than two. If I weren't on a budget, this would be extremely simple—there are rare lands all over the place that help support a three-mana deck (the Tenth Edition Painlands, the Lorwyn tribe lands, Gemstone Mine, the Future Sight "timeshifted" dual lands). All of these lands are pretty pricy (the least valuable goes for four tickets on Magic Online for any combination of white / blue, blue / black, and black / white), and the deck (as-is) is a very cheap (less than 15 tickets) build. I'd like to keep it around there, so it's time to see what other options are out there.

Boreal Shelf had been working out really well, so I saw no reason to take those out entirely. However, there is a black / blue equivalent to this land (Frost Marsh), so swapping two of one out for two of the other seemed fair. Also, the deck is only going to be running a handful of black cards and a handful of white cards, so the focus needs to be blue, but I need to be able to get a (single) black or white mana early.

I added a single Swamp and a single Terramorphic Expanse to help smooth out the mana base, but I also put in two copies of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. If I get a single Urborg, it fixes all of my mana problems for black mana—and I have Tolaria West in this deck to tutor for Urborg (or any given land), so they seemed preferable to Swamps. If you want to keep this deck really cheap, you could probably get away with Swamps in the place of Urborg—but Urborg is not very expensive online (2.5 to 3 tickets).

Since I'm already putting in some black, I also decide to add in a couple of Mournwhelk. I definitely wanted to add a comes-into-play discard creature, but there was definitely contention between Ravenous Rats and Mournwhelk. In the end, I liked having a 3/3 body on a creature (Mournwhelk) rather than a 1/1 body, and I wanted to hit my opponent's hand two cards at a time (at four, five, six, or seven mana depending on whether I had no tricks, Vedalken Mastermind, Momentary Blink, or seven lands).

To smooth out the rest of the mana, I put in one copy of Dreadship Reef and one copy of Calciform Pools. These are not only to gain access to Black and White mana (and Blue mana, in a pinch), but to help me ramp up to higher-cost spells or more explosive turns late game.

Out: 3 Surgespanner, 2 Plains, 2 Dream Stalker, 3 Island, 2 Boreal Shelf, 1 Reality Acid
In: 2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, 3 Shriekmaw, 2 Mournwhelk, 2 Frost Marsh, 1 Calciform Pools, 1 Dreadship Reef, 1 Swamp, 1 Terramorphic Expanse

The Joke's on You 3

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Game 4: jwik808 (Black-Red-Blue Madness)

I get shenanigans going with Shriekmaw, Momentary Blink, Jester's Scepter, Mournwhelk, and Dream Stalker, which allow me to strip out his hand, keep his board clear of threats, and get a concession going in that order.

Record: 4-0

Game 5: Squeak9906 (Green-Red Elvish Piper)

I get Vedalken Mastermind and Reality Acid, but I'm one turn behind at all times from being able to kill his Elvish Piper versus the threats being put down by the Piper, thanks to his first creature being an end-of-turn Krosan Cloudscraper (for 13 damage!). I kill it, BoomerangVerdant Force, and still have to deal with Molimo, Maro-Sorcerer. I'm in topdeck mode against Verdant Force and Molimo when my computer goes on the fritz, ending my testing for the night. I think Squeak9906 would have likely won this game, as I'd have to have top-decked Shriekmaw or Mulldrifter to get out of the board situation I found myself in.

Record: 4-1

Game 6: filament (Red-Green Elementals)

I get stuck without white mana for Oblivion Ring, and he runs me over quickly with burn on my Vedalken Masterminds and a bunch of one and two drop creatures. I end up basically getting blown out this game by having the wrong color of mana on the board.

Record: 4-2

Game 7: Merlion_Emrys (Treefolk)

He starts with Treefolk Harbinger to get Timber Protector. I use Dream Stalker to stop him from being in, and eventually start killing off his guys with Reality Acid, Vedalken Mastermind, and Boomerang. Being indestructible doesn't stop creatures from dying to sacrifice effects, so I am able to clear off any creatures around the Protector, before focusing on the Protector (and Forests) themselves. He concedes when I lock him out of being able to play spells for the rest of the game.

Record: 5-2

Game 8: Miss Blue (Merfolk)

We go back and forth, as her deck is full of troublesome creatures for me, such as Merrow Reejerey and Lord of Atlantis (to make all of her Merfolk unblockable by my creatures). She uses Oblivion Rings to take out my early Vedalken Masterminds, but I get Oblivion Rings of my own, get back both of my Masterminds, and lock down the game at a single-digit life total with Mournwhelks and Shriekmaws. I finally finish it off with a Jester's Scepter, which hits twice a turn thanks to double Mastermind.

Record: 6-2

Game 9: rettane (Red-Black Giants / Goblins / Faeries)

I get the lock down with Jester's Scepter and Vedalken Mastermind and Reality Acid. Scepter stops Nameless Inversion on my Mastermind, and then I stop him from doing anything else. I get down another Mastermind and a second Scepter, and start decking him for ten cards a turn. He quickly concedes.

Record: 7-2

Game 10: _TOMP_ (Blue-Black-Red Reanimator)

Bonded Fetch
He gets an early Bonded Fetch and uses it to drop Dread Return into his graveyard. I get a second-turn Prismatic Lens followed by a third turn Prismatic Lens / Jester's Scepter. He drops a second Bonded Fetch, and I use Shriekmaw (evoked) plus Momentary Blink to kill them both, but not before he gets an Akroma, Angel of Fury into his graveyard. He drops a third Bonded Fetch, and I kill it with the flashback on my Blink. He follows with a Dread Return on his Akroma, plus a Kher Keep and a Looter il-Kor. I kill the Looter and the Akroma with a second Momentary Blink, and then kill a forth Bonded Fetch by hard casting a second Shriekmaw. My 3/2 fear guys go all the way, having taken out six of his creatures!

Record: 8-2

If there's one thing I learned, it's that Shriekmaw is as good as advertised. I was never unhappy to draw Shriekmaw, and it frequently (and effectively) won me games more than any other card in the deck. Surely this is a sign that a fourth copy was needed for the deck.

Also, I only needed a single Plains or Swamp to go with multiple Islands to cast most of the spells in my deck. Tolaria West had always been a bit shaky, so I added in a second Terramorphic Expanse to grab the right basic land for the right situation.

Out: 1 Tolaria West, 1 Jester's Scepter
In: 1 Shriekmaw, 1 Terramorphic Expanse

The Joke's on You 4

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Game 11: Treafee (Mono-Green Elves)

I lock down his lands with Reality Acid and Vedalken Mastermind on turn four, drawing a concession.

Record: 9-2

Game 12: arthexis (Goblins)

I get a slow draw, and he drops five guys by turn four. I get killed by Mudbutton Trenchrunner and Wort, Boggart Auntie. Shriekmaw, for the first time, is less than optimal against a board of double Festering Goblin, double Mudbottom Trenchrunner, and a Wort.

Record: 9-3

Game 13: 2bornottob (White-Green Snow with Kavu Predator / Wall of Shards)

Shriekmaw, evoked on turn four with Momentary Blink, takes out half his team. Momentary Blink flashed back takes out another creature. I then control the game slowly but surely with Shriekmaw, Boomerang, and double Oblivion Ring. My Shriekmaw, thanks to fear, goes all the way.

Record: 10-3

Game 14: GeneticFreak49 (Kithkin Aggro)

Momentary Blink
I get turn-two Vedalken Mastermind, and then evoke Shriekmaw on turn three, returning it to my hand with the Mastermind. This keeps him from playing any creatures. I then start taking out his lands one-by-one with Reality Acid, and swinging with Shriekmaw. When he tries to use Sunlance on my Mastermind, I save it with Momentary Blink, drawing a concession.

Record: 11-3

Game 15: scymeganck (Blue-White Momentary Blink Control)

I outmaneuver him with Oblivion Ring, Shriekmaw (against his Vesuvan Shapeshifter), and Mournwhelk / Mulldrifter. Even though he has answers for my questions at times, I get massive card advantage through my Blinks, whereas his are mainly one-for-one (Persuasion) or one-for-none (Riftwing Cloudskate).

Record: 12-3

The Joke's On You ended up being a very fun, competitive deck to play! The addition of black to the deck (and a focus on evoke) complemented the Vedalken Mastermind / Oblivion Ring / Reality Acid portion of the deck well, resulting in a very smooth-acting Johnny (very Johnny) deck. Plus, the deck is very cheap to build (it's mostly commons and uncommons), so it's perfect for the budget-minded midrange game player!

Next Week: Hostile Intentions

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