New Year’s Evil

Posted in Feature on January 3, 2007

By Chris Millar

Welcome back to House of Cards! It's been a while, Johnnies. I haven't seen you since 2006 – a whole year! I hope everyone enjoyed the break, the holidays, and the weird things that have been happening on the site since Monday.

Charcoal_DiamondI had a wonderful time with family and friends the past couple weeks. My only disappointment came from the fact that this year I found a lump of coal in my Christmas stocking. I'm not sure what Santa Claus was thinking. Doesn't he know that fossil fuels are passé? Maybe news travels slowly to the North Pole – those elves should workshop up a better internet connection. At least it was better than the drum of oil I got two years ago. While I'm currently using that lump of coal to power a very small locomotive, I really hope that he gives me a solar panel or a windmill next year.

Enough about 2006. We're in The New Year where we get to make A Fresh Start. Normally, I don't make any New Year's resolutions because I live such a fabulous life already. I have many pairs of shoes and eat out a lot and own several cars I don't even drive, which is apparently all it takes. To give me something to do this January, I decided that I would pack on forty pounds and develop a number of bad habits. Right now I'm chewing my nails and running behind schedule. My final resolution was to build more silly and/or fun Magic decks. Let's see if I can stick to it, shall we?

The Past

If you can remember back before Christmas, during my wildly successful Easter Egg Week column, I wrote about Seedborn Muse and how awesome it is to untap stuff. Well, just as I was putting the finishing touches on that article – dotting the y's and crossing the b's, just so Kelly had to put them on the i's and t's where they belonged – I got an email from Harley. He's appeared in this column before as the designer of the Ixidron / Natural Affinity deck I wrote about a little while ago. Instead of having a kooky U/W/g deck to share, this time he had an altogether ooky U/G/w deck, and it was based on Seedborn Muse. The other key piece was Chronatog Totem, a card I've been hoping to see someone build around ever since I put it in the poll leading up to my announcement of the Dralnu Deckbuilding Challenge.

The basic idea is that your Seedborn Muse effectively negates the “skip your turn” drawback of Chronatog Totem, since you can now play out your turn during your opponent's turn. We've seen Seedborn Muse in a similar “combo” with the Chronatog Vanguard Avatar on Magic Online. With Harley's deck, if you skip your turn you can still ping with Fledgling Mawcor, bounce permanents with Heidar, Rimewind Master, add mana with Birds of Paradise (!), send your mightiest warrior into the Arena to do battle, draw cards with Scrying Sheets, and gradually make an army of flying ponies with Sacred Mesa. It's really much more fun when everyone takes their turns at once.

Because I have astonishingly sensitive hearing, I can tell that you're asking, “Couldn't you do all this without the turn-skipping powers of Chronatog Totem?” The answer is “Pretty much.” The beauty of Harley's deck is that the turn-skipping is very important because of one card: Cover of Winter. If you never have a turn, you never have an upkeep. If you never have an upkeep, you never have to pay for Cover of Winter. And if you never have to pay for Cover of Winter, you can charge it up all day long, effectively making you and your creatures completely immune from opposing forces. While you're safe from harm, you can win as gradually as you like.

I only made a couple minor changes to Harley's deck, swapping Coldsteel Heart for Into the North so I could more effectively use the Scrying Sheets that I also added. It didn't occur to me until now, but Elvish Piper is also worth trying out.

As a bonus, Harley “added an eight-mana lockdown combo.” And it goes a little something like this:

: Animate Chronatog Totem and pump it.
: Make two Pegasus tokens with Sacred Mesa.
: Sacrifice both tokens to Claws of Gix to gain two life.
Pay two life to Zur's Weirding: Deny your opponent's draw.”

While that might be a little unlikely to pull off (it is, after all, a four-card combo that requires a bit of set up), what I like most about Harley's deck is that it can be tweaked in so many different ways and the four-card combos can be broken down and still do interesting things (like Seedborn Muse and Sacred Mesa, say). Here's a few suggestions to get your brain a-whirring:

  • Cover of Winter
    While Seedborn Muse and Cover of Winter aren't overtly synergistic, they nevertheless have a nice interaction. Normally, paying the upkeep for Cover of Winter will take much of your mana, which severely limits what you can do to advance your game plan. With Seedborn Muse, however, you might still have your hands tied during your own turn, but you can now take advantage of the freeing of your mana on your opponent's turn by, say, playing creatures with flash.
  • Before Time Spiral hit the scene, I was goofing around on Magic Online with U/G snow deck that used some of the Simic graft creatures (most notably, Vigean Graftmage) with Heidar, Rimewind Master and Rimewind Taskmage. With a +1/+1 counter on either of them, you can quickly lock up the opponent's board. Seedborn Muse would fit right into this strategy. Other cards that you might want to try out in such a deck include Experiment Kraj, Thought Courier, and Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir (who loves Seedborn Muse).
  • I'm not sure why, but I like idea of Harley's Sacred Mesa, Zur's Weirding, Claws of Gix lockdown. It's a little unwieldy, as I mentioned, but at least all three cards can be useful on their own and you can definitely add some redundancy to the deck to make it more consistent. Sacrificing tokens to Claws of Gix will gain you enough life to support a full-on Zur-lock, but Soul Warden can do the same thing for zero mana once it's on the board. Icatian Crier does a halfway-decent Sacred Mesa impression if all you need is a pair of tokens per turn.

The Present

If you haven't checked out Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar's Going Rogue column, do it. If you've ever wanted to see the deckbuilding process laid bare, Jay does it with aplomb. (That came out sounding much weirder than I thought it would.)

Macabre Waltz
Right around the same time, I had whipped up a deck similar to his concoction in that article. Well, it was similar in that it had small black creatures that you wanted to discard. While Jay's deck was good and sane, mine was full of madness. Madness like Nightshade Assassin and Gorgon Recluse and Dark Withering, whose insanity you can encourage with Mindlash Slivers, Rakdos Guildmages, and Trespasser il-Vecs.

Perhaps the coolest madness-enabler is Dissension's Macabre Waltz, something that a reader by the name of Jacois pointed out to me. On its own and with a full graveyard, Macabre Waltz is like a black Compulsive Research. With madness cards, it's more like a Compulsive Research combined with a Show and Tell. This works particularly well with Nightshade Assassin, allowing you to play it on the cheap while filling your hand to maximize its comes-into-play ability.

The graveyard-filling dredge cards help out the Macabre Waltz, so I included a set of Elf-killing Darkblasts. I really, really wanted to use Stinkweed Imp, but the deck didn't work quite as well when every spell cost three mana or more. Go figure.

I wanted a finisher, something big and black and hard to handle. Skeletal Vampire certainly fits the bill, but so does Stronghold Overseer. They both seemed very excited to be in the deck, and I was having trouble deciding between the two, so I went with one of each. How do you turn down a Demon or a Vampire? The answer is you don't.

You could definitely make a slower, more controlling black madness deck, since Urborg Syphon-Mage, Nightshade Assassin, and Gorgon Recluse aren't exactly the most aggressive of creatures. I'd start with Psychotic Episode and Demonic Collusion, then I'd probably find room some Phyrexian Arenas. Nihilistic Glee might even find a home in such a deck. If only black had some kind of mass removal. That would really help a control strategy. Ah, well.

Of course, if you move up to Extended, you can use Zombie Infestation, perhaps the best black madness-enabler in the world.

The Future

Over the summer, my friend and I tried to beat the heat by playing a little mano a mano Coldsnap Limited. There are many interesting two-player Limited variants (check out Winston Draft or Mindmaster), but we just opened the packs and passed them back and forth. There were far fewer surprises this way (you were only really shocked when your opponent played the bomb he opened), but it was easier and, hey, Magic is fun no matter how you divvy up the cards, with Fact or Fiction being the only possible exception.

Somehow I got swindled into playing red and green every single time. I just had problems (deep-seated and perhaps indicative of some mental deficiency) with passing Boreal Druid, Into the North, and any of the eight million fatties in those colours. (Note: If you're ever sitting next to me at the bottom tables of a tournament, you'd be wise to stay out of green!)

This meant that he had his pick of the blue, white, and/or black cards. One of those cards that invariably found its way into his stack was the hilarious and fun Counterbalance. From the name alone, you know you're in for a treat. Counter. Balance. The only card that comes close to it is the much-maligned Discardpillage, which is not actually a real card (though I bet it would be annoying). Now, unless you're playing some weird limited format, I'm pretty sure that Counterbalance is not worth playing, since the only way to set it up in Coldsnap is Survivor of the Unseen. All I know for sure is that it was effective that day, both at countering my spells and reducing me to tears.

I had my Skreds countered by a revealed Gelid Shackles, my Goblin Rimerunners stymied by Frost Raptors, my Boreal Centaurs thwarted by Rimewind Taskmages or Squall Drifters. I would “bait” out a counter with a Boreal Druid (just to see what was on top of his library), then walk my subsequent Ronom Hulk right into a Rune Snag.

Sometimes we'd both forget that the Counterbalance was on the table. I'd lay a creature and say, “Go” only to have to back up and discover that my monster didn't make it through the æther unharmed. Sigh.

Worst of all, in the last game I played before collapsing on the ground in tears, I tapped out for a game-winning, but slightly excessive, Balduvian Rage for 5, only to discover that there was a Ronom Serpent loitering on the top floor of the library. Steam starting hissing out of my ears almost immediately. Through some miracle, I kept my few remaining gaskets from blowing.

The odds of this happening for what approached eight million straight turns were slim. They were certainly worse than 50/50, worse than a coin flip. That's what made it so frustrating. This got me thinking: What if you could turn the successful resolution of every spell into a coin flip? Well, it turns out that you can, and the card that lets you do it is particularly relevant right now – Planar Chaos!

Planar Chaos
Believe it or not, I've seen this card “work.” You flip a coin for every spell, even your own spells, and you have to win a coin flip at the beginning of your upkeep in order to keep it on the table. It's probably at its best in multiplayer games where you can counter six spells before you have to “pay” the upkeep once. There are a few ways to break the symmetry (why is desymmetrify not a word?). The most obvious one is Krark's Thumb, which will probably give your Planar Chaos more staying power while at the same time give your own spells a better shot at resolving. Another way to keep Planar Chaos around is by skipping your upkeep step entirely with the aid of Eon Hub – the Fifth Dawn rare, not the prog-rock band. With both Eon Hub and Planar Chaos on the table, you'll never have to pay the upkeep and you can frustrate opponents with coin flips for as long as you can stay alive. The cool thing is that your opponent will only have a 50/50 shot at breaking up the combo.

In order to stay alive as long as possible, and as a result, prolong your opponent's misery, I decided to take a page out of Harley's book and use Cover of Winter. Not coincidentally, this card also works very well when you have no upkeep step because of Eon Hub. Just add age counters willy-nilly and never pay for them! It's the Magic equivalent of the “dine and dash.” There are many Coldsnap cards that could also fit into the deck, but the one that appealed to me the most was the fan-made Vanish into Memory. If you play it with an Eon Hub kicking around, you'll remove the creature from game permanently. The critter can't come back “at the beginning of your next upkeep” if you don't have a “next upkeep.”

If you get tired of sitting behind Walls and Cover of Winter, countering spells randomly, you can use Triskelavus recursion (via Academy Ruins) to eventually achieve victory. Always keep in mind, though, that it's the journey and not the destination that's important. As long as the journey is incredibly frustrating for your opponent, that is.

Counterbalance is in there just for “fun,” hence the single copy. The only way to manipulate the top of your library in response to spell is by using Academy Ruins. If you know what your opponent is going to play, you could also use Serum Visions to scry an appropriately costed card to the top. But that's not really the point. Isn't it better if it's completely random? Won't it make your opponent much more miserable that way? Isn't that what Magic's all about? Well, that and Elves?

Until next time, have fun in the future!

Chris Millar

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