Going Rogue

Posted in Feature on February 25, 2008

By Tim Willoughby

It felt inevitable that there was going to be a Rogue Week once Morningtide came out. Having an article of this title, with this topic, could hardly be considered a surprise. I suppose that the only real surprise here is who's writing it. My name is Tim Willoughby, and while you may recognize my name from Pro Tour coverage, this is my first article on Magic in some time. Conveniently enough, it's one for which I feel well qualified, for while I may not be a regular on the Pro Tour as anything other than a writer, I am most definitely a rogue.

While Rogue has only been a supported creature type for a relatively fleeting period of time thus far, there have been rogue players for almost as long as the game itself. As long as there have been people playing remotely established deck types, or playing in a particular fashion, there have been rogues, looking to profit from their predictability.

In Magic, there are various ways to have an edge on the competition. Having a good deck is a good start. Finding a powerful decklist is easier now than ever before, so a lot of the time you will find that you are sitting opposite one every round. Nonetheless, the right deck on the right day can feel like bringing a gun to a knife fight. The next step will be preparation. Part of this is knowing how to play your deck, and a great deal more of it will be knowing how to play your deck against the good decks that everyone else has.

Rogues are fighting against good decks, but much more so, they are fighting against the knowledge and preparation of their opponents. Most of the time, this will be with a deck that opponents are unprepared for—ideally, a good deck, which has a good plan against the other good decks, while opponents have no plan against it. Add up those edges, and you start winning.

Knowledge_ExploitationRogue play is more than just decklists though. Sometimes it comes down to innovating in what you do with your 75 cards as much as it does rather than what they might be. Carlos Romao became the World Champion playing Psychatog in a field full of people doing just the same. His list was far from standout in its construction. However, his plan, to fight over win conditions with his counterspells rather than over card drawing, was a step away from the norm, which was key in his dominating mirror matches both in the Swiss rounds and the Top 8.

Should everyone try to play as a rogue all the time? No. Playing powerful decks from the Pro Tour is fun. These decks have been tuned and tweaked, and when you play with one, you get to make the most of the knowledge and experience of the best in the game. These decks just work. On top of that, the decks tend to be really powerful. It's hard to argue with success right?

However, if you find that you are getting a little stuck in a routine at your local Friday Night Magic, and looking for something new, I recommend reading on. While everyone else is trying to find guns for knife fights, you can go for a different weapon entirely.

Sometimes all it will take to make a deck that throws others off their stride is to tweak it a little bit. Other times a rogue deck will be something so profoundly new and different that opponents spend their entire game in a state of confusion. Either of them will get you a taste of that rogue experience. Getting one up on your opponent by springing your surprise is quite addictive.

Fundamentally, when building something a little different, your goals should be the same. You want to win. You want to beat whatever you expect everyone else to be playing. The rogue decks that do really well (often becoming the decks that you see everywhere after a breakout performance) are the ones that take a good idea that satisfies the fundamentals while still throwing opponents off balance.

If you're playing a format where matches are normally over by turn six, unless you have some revelatory way of slowing down the game, your very innovative deck that locks the game up on turn 8 is going to be a rather frustrating one to play. Back when Blue-Green Madness was around, running decks with Wellwisher was quite a clever little play—the madness decks could race big creatures perfectly well, but had trouble dealing with the life gain of Wellwisher in addition to a legitimate clock. These days, you can have a beautiful combo deck revolving around creatures, but you really need to ensure that you are safe from the large amounts of creature removal that pack main decks and sideboards all over Standard. What's the point being different if the same old answers still beat you?

The place where rogue decks are often born for me is on Gatherer. Right here on magicthegathering.com there are all the resources you need to find the next big thing. What I'm normally looking for in a rogue deck is a card or combination of cards that is powerful and that players might not have been up against before. This can be dangerous territory, as typically, the reason that players avoid a card is that it just isn't quite good enough. However, some proportion of the time, you can find a hidden gem with which to make people's lives very uncomfortable. Please note that while a lot of the cards I've highlighted below are rares, rogue deckbuilding is often not expensive, as conveniently, those overlooked rares work out being fairly cheap to get hold of.

What follows is a list (by no means exhaustive) of the decks that I have been building since Morningtide came out. Some of them are concept pieces, not yet fully formed, while others have already taken more than a few scalps at my local games store. If you're looking for some roguish fun, look no further.

Shared Animosity

Shared Animosity
Shared Animosity is one of those cards that I haven't seen used a great deal yet, but given the strong tribal themes in Standard right now, it seems likely to me that there is a place for it somewhere. The most obvious choice is in a Goblin deck, where it is the easiest to play, and a lone Mogg War Marshal (with his little friend) will pick up an extra +2/+0 in total on the first attack. If you go red-black for Rogues then the most exciting inclusion is probably Marsh Flitter, though Bitterblossom also stands out as a way of making your army big enough to inflict real damage, and with evasion thrown in at no extra cost. Between just Bitterblossom and Shared Animosity, it only takes four turns of attacking to get over the magic 20 mark. The really exciting part about this plan is that there is still a tonne of space in this deck to do more. Here's the list as I've taken it:

Bitter Animosity

A few notes on this list. One of the situations you really don't want to find yourself in is being unable to attack due your opponent having sufficient blockers to just trade with your team, without your being able to sneak through damage—for example, if your opponent also has a Bitterblossom in play. Enter Sudden Spoiling. All of a sudden you can set up a one-sided Wrath of God on those turns, leaving things wide open for attacks on the following turn. It also makes various awkward-to-deal-with creatures (I'm looking at you, Mr. Tarmogoyf) a lot easier to kill and handily gives you a maindeck answer to the tricksy Reveillark combo decks that are proving a powerful new addition to the metagame. The creature base is primarily aimed at ensuring you have plenty of creatures out without having to play lots of cards, and as such exposing yourself to mass removal. Loxodon Warhammer is in there both as a neat little combo with Bitterblossom, and for a little bit of redundancy with Shared Animosity. Functionally both cards turn whatever creature you have in play into a threat that your opponent can't really ignore.

There are actually a whole bunch of ways that you could go with this basic plan for this deck. Between Kher Keep and Bitterblossom you could go virtually without creatures, and load up on board control elements and discard. There is definitely something exciting about playing Damnation, following up with an activation of Kher Keep, then attacking the following turn with your one Faerie, one Kobold, and Mutavault for 7 damage. Alternatively you could choose to move towards white and Kithkin for your creature production. With Militia's Pride and Preeminant Captian helping you get lots of attacking creatures, Shared Animosity could easily finish things off in a hurry. Field Marshal in there could also make blocking a far from attractive scenario for opponents. More or less any tribal deck might want to think about running this one-sided Coat of Arms... at least for now, it could prove the huge attack boost that nobody is expecting.

Wild Pair

Wild Pair
I've been making Wild Pair decks since Time Spiral Block Constructed. Back then, my build was a combo deck that used Wild Pair to efficiently assemble a whole mess of slivers who would ultimately win the game (for those of you interested it was Dormant Sliver, Gemhide Sliver, Basal Sliver, Pulmonic Sliver, Reflex Sliver and Necrotic Sliver). Nowadays, Slivers aren't so hot a plan due to the awkward presence of changelings. Personally I'm not a big fan of making my opponent's Chameleon Colossuses even scarier than they already are.

Wild Pair is still super powerful, it's just that all of a sudden we need a new way of doing special things with it. One of the first things that comes to mind is how exciting it might be to use Whitemane Lion to fetch Mulldrifter. Fetching Mystic Snake is also a powerful play. Unfortunately, the former is a little tricky on the mana base, and the latter has kind of been done already, by players better than me in Grand Prix Top 8s.

Given that this is the Morningtide edition of Going Rogue, I thought I'd take a look at the Wild Pair build of a Gilt-Leaf Archdruid deck. The principal problem with getting Gilt-Leaf Archdruid going is that you need a lot of Druids in play to get things going, all of which more or less just tap for mana. That's a lot of creating mana and not a lot else. Your opponent doesn't exactly need to kill very many of those Druids to leave you without a game. Wild Pair, meanwhile, costs quite a lot, but is good at ensuring that you end up with lots of creatures in play. Methinks we have a match!

Druids Gone Wild

What I love about this deck is that from the kickoff, your opponent has to assume that you are a regular Elf deck. In many respects, you are. However, you have an endgame, in the form of the Archdruid, that is not easily fought in the same fashion as Elves. Jolrael, who can be fetched through Wild Pair by both the Archdruid and Wren's Run Vanquisher, even gives you a very powerful protection from Wrath of God effects. If your opponent chooses to kill all your creatures with Wrath of God or Damnation, you can make it cost them all their lands.

A quick note on Imperious Perfect in this deck. There is a definite lack of synergy between the Perfect and Wild Pair. However, the Perfect is so powerful that it makes the cut in spite of this. Call it your plan B. There will definitely be occasions where Imperious Perfect (especially helped out by Thousand Year Elixir) will win you games. The good news is that when this plan doesn't work out, and your opponent, rightly, offs your lord, you have successfully distracted them from your main plan. That's right, Elves can be sneaky too!

Storm Redux

Grinning Ignus
Right around the time that Future Sight came out, there was a small stir about the interaction between Cloud Key (set to creatures) and Grinning Ignus. This doesn't create infinite storm, but it does allow you to create a storm count equal to the amount of red mana you choose to spend, which is often enough. At the time, people were rather more concerned with a big storm spell involving dragons that didn't ever really need to storm for more than four, and most people forgot about it.

I didn't.

The good news is, on the sly, the deck got better. Back around Time Spiral time, creature types didn't really matter too much. Since then, Elementals got better. Most specifically, Brighthearth Banneret and Flamekin Harbinger were printed, each of which makes setting up your big stormy turn that much easier. Now, Seething Song is no longer around, but this doesn't seem a good enough reason to give the deck a try. Here's my try.

Storm Elementals

Ooh, all of a sudden our one trick pony has a little extra redundancy! The lack of Seething Song definitely hurts—sufficiently that we have included Rite of Flame in spite of not really needing to ramp up our mana. This one is still a work in progress; some other potential inclusions for consideration include Soulbright Flamekin, Ceaseless Searblades, Twinning Glass, and Veilstone Amulet. The last of these is kind of a techy inclusion that might well prove necessary to generally make you safer from having your "combo" disrupted by a whole bunch of removal spells. Though of course, each of those removal spells is raising your storm count.

Quick Hits

Now, unfortunately, the nature of this article rather sits at cross purposes to its content. The more nifty tech I throw out there, the less said nifty tech remains so. I want people to be surprised when you play Shared Animosity and suddenly attack for 36 in the air with your six Faerie Rogues. I don't want people to be ready for your Wild Pair powering out Gilt Leaf Archdruid and Jolrael on consecutive turns. But if your opponent has been reading this article, they might have an inkling. To that end, what follows can be considered quick hits, ideas that I see as being both fun and unexpected. That is to say, rogue decks.

Arcum_DagssonMarch of the Machines + Arcum Dagsson

I've been building a lot of decks lately that make good use of Thousand-Year Elixir, and this might well become another of them. I like the idea of not only getting Akroma's Memorial into play on the cheap, but also being able to attack with said Memorial for 1 point more than Akroma, Angel of Wrath.

Colfenor's UrnColfenor's Urn + evoke fatties

Between Cloudthresher, Aethersnipe, Walker of the Grove, and Briarhorn, it feels like there might be just enough fuel for the Colfenor's Urn fire. Even better, and this is kind of a personal thing, this is the deck that gets extra value out of Giant Growth. I might be the biggest fan of Giant Growth (and Brute Force) at the moment, as it is the most obnoxious form of rogue spell. It is card that everyone should be ready for, but nobody is. Seriously, try out Giant Growth in your next FNM deck. Don't play it until it either counters your opponent's removal, kills an opponent's creature, or kills your opponent themselves. Then watch the way that your opponent plays for the rest of the match. Like a true rogue, you have given them the fear.

Bramblewood_ParagonCounters Counters Everywhere

It is easy enough to engineer a deck where your creatures gain +1/+1 counters. An Elf deck with Imperious Perfect and Bramblewood Paragon does a fine job in that regard for a kickoff. What I find kind of interesting is the idea of a deck that runs a few of the other +1/+1 counter lords as well, not for their counter ability, but to grant more abilities to those creatures. The reason that I selected the Elf deck to do this to is that green has the best mana fixing for splashes, and the greatest number of cheap and cheerful changelings, who could profitably gain from all those counters. What can I say? I love the idea of all those Elves decimating my opponent's hand thanks to their friend Oona's Blackguard.

Enduring_RenewalEnduring Renewal

When it was first announced that Enduring Renewal was coming back in timeshifted form, I was one among many who got pretty excited. Somehow or other, it never quite panned out. However, with each new set, I have another go. The latest attempt sees me avoiding trying to get a one turn kill, in favour of setting up some powerful evoke recursion. Being able to play Mulldrifter, Aethersnipe, Shriekmaw and friends every turn seems pretty solid to me. With a suite of reanimation spells to go along with it, it's a Makeshift Mannequin deck with a few extra tricks.

ConspiracyConspiracy Theory

With our tribal block now completed, if ever we had a good time to play Conspiracy tricks, it is now. Now, Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder is a good place to start with this plan. It doesn't really matter what creature type we make Mr Sahr to get that little combo going, but what other synergies can we find? I like the idea of having a little rebel chain going on. Fetching a Defiant Vanguard with Blightspeaker is okay, but then fetching a Leaf-Crowned Elder with the Vanguard? That's spicy. With the Elder being a Rebel, its kinship will fire on any creature that is on top of your deck. Throw in sufficient changelings and you've got yourself a party.

Rogue deckbuilding is a great deal of fun, and as this article has hopefully shown, there are more ways of skinning a cat (or defeating an opponent) than you might see at your local FNM. If you are looking for an edge on the competition and bit of jollity at the expense of your opponent's life total, I suggest you try it out.

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