The Panacea Pachyderm

Posted in Feature on January 5, 2006

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

It's interesting since next week we begin our look at Guildpact here at that I should decide to look back at an influential Ravnica: City of Guilds card with the equal and opposite lens of a preview article. However Loxodon Hierarch is such a pervasive and variously adopted card that has found its way into so many different decks that this “panacea” pachyderm bears a closer look for all the manifold reasons it is played.

The Better Baloth:

Ravenous Baloth
I actually did the original preview for Ravenous Baloth back when Onslaught was the hot new set, and had many nice things to say about that (at the time) gold standard. On a superficial level, there are many parallels we can draw between the Baloth then and the Hierarch today, down to the presence of the best dual lands since Alpha appearing in the 4/4s' respective sets. Loxodon Hierarch screams for comparison with Ravenous Baloth, of course. It is a 4/4 for four mana that can give you four life... pretty simple. That said, for almost any deck that can manage Loxodon Hierarch's more colorful cost, it is just a better card than the storied Baloth. We can all say "why" on a basic level: Loxodon Hierarch gives you four life immediately… it acts kind of like a bigger and angrier Teroh's Faithful whereas Ravenous Baloth demands the death of a 4/4 before forking over that anti-Fireblast. But what about from a game level? Why is that such a big deal?

The answer, beyond the obvious zoning and timing issues, is tempo.

People bandy the word “tempo” around like they know what they are talking about, but I have never been satisfied with any definitions of the quality for Magic. The best I have ever been able to discern is that tempo is this thing that you can watch, such that you can usually figure out who's got it and who hasn't. When any efficient 4/4 comes down against a fast Red deck, it will usually give the aggressor pause. Why? Any such monster can serve as a stop sign, deterring the next attack, or at least forcing a competent Red Deck player to start doing math. Often he will try to figure if it is right to swing with everything, whether it is worth it to “sacrifice” one of his team in each of the next two swings in exchange for whatever damage he can get across; further, the crafty Red mage will decide whether his burn card is worth the half-card 4/4 or if it is better as a co-finisher alongside those attack steps.

Loxodon Hierarch
Loxodon Hierarch can potentially throw a huge monkey wrench into equations like these. Remember what I said about tempo being a sort of thing that you can see, that one player can hold and that the other can seize? You will be able to see if a Hierarch – which should almost always represent multiple cards against a Red player – actually halts the attack like a stop sign or if its four life and potential to block are not significant enough given the board situation, whether this card generates or steals the tempo or does nothing. Some times, especially when fighting an Extended Goblins deck, a lone Hierarch will have no significant effect, maybe it just staves off the kill for one turn. Other times it will obviate the math we spoke about in the last paragraph; the Red Deck's master will slump in his chair, knowing that given two blocks from the big guy, he won't have enough smoke to finish the game.

When I wrote “Beatdown from Beast Town”, the first thing I wanted to talk about was how Ravenous Baloth – this sort of bigger Spike Feeder – was going to kick “Red mages in the teeth.” Certainly Ravenous Baloth can generate card advantage, and is bigger than most Red creatures that you will typically see in tournament play, but almost every thing that Ravenous Baloth does, from this perspective, the Hierarch does better. Certain advantages, as we said, are obvious. In some situations, you will have to sacrifice Ravenous Baloth with damage on the stack to avoid lethal damage; he might get a block – and even a trade – in, but because you need the four life before passing out of the opponent's combat step, you will have to sacrifice the big Beast before damage resolves. From a card advantage standpoint, voluntary sacrifice might mean that you have no 4/4 for the next turn's blocking, whereas Loxodon Hierarch would in the same spot have bought an additional card like Last Gasp or Volcanic Hammer before hitting the graveyard. On a more subtle level, think about a card that put a lot of hurt on Ravenous Baloth in-Block.

A long tradition of Spike Feeders and Verdant Forces meant that before Onslaught, great Green creatures were just assumed to beat little Red men; the heavy Tribal theme that put together competitive Beasts decks for the first time helped Goblins even more. As such, you had guys like Sparksmith aiming at Baloths in PTQs, posing the question “what do you care about more, four life for you or four damage for me?” More often than not, the disgusted Green players would have to sacrifice their Ravenous Baloths, giving the happy Goblin players a kill with no downside. Loxodon Hierarch doesn't play that way. You shoot at him, 99% of the time, you take the damage. If you don't, it's because there is going to be a one-sided bloodbath that the Goblins player won't like.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many practitioners of The Rock – a deck that has for years successfully strung together “good stuff” Black and Green cards with little or no strategic synergy – have bent their mana bases to accommodate that one White mana in Loxodon Hierarch's mana cost. What is more intriguing is how the disciples of Levy (rather than Malka) have approached the same problem. After his Top 8 near miss at Pro Tour LA, Raphael Levy added Iwamori of the Open Fist to his sideboard for the difficult Boros Deck Wins match-up. Levy eventually concluded that the 5/5 Legendary Human Monk just wasn't big enough.

But what about a different four drop? Sam Atkinson posted a Top 8 at Grand Prix Melbourne with a Levy-inspired Aggro-Rock that played Iwamori, sure, but added two main-deck copies of the Elephant in question.

Sam Atkinson - B/W/G Aggro

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If the problem in the Boros match-up is the closing burn, then a little life gain is probably a welcome thing. Alongside “tempo,” card advantage is another basic term we use in Magic that sometimes gets a little abuse and misuse. It's easy to see that a Hymn to Tourach taking two random cards is a two-for one in the card advantage department, but what about Loxodon Hierarch? When the opponent's plan is to send a fist full of fire into your face, is it that difficult to see that today's featured 4/4 is a body that also counters both sides of a Firebolt, trades with two Lava Darts and two Mountains before we even talk about removing it from the table?

That Sorta Creatureless Thing

The CAL was one of two breakout Tier One decks from this past Extended Grand Prix and PTQ season. Called the best deck in the format by some of the best players in the game, the CAL was an outstanding machine, fighting battles on multiple fronts and winning them all. It was better at drawing cards than most Blue decks, could give the opponent that same sick feeling he might get against a combo deck, and kill creatures almost at will.

When playing against the CAL, decks like Astral Slide might side out all their copies of the dedicated creature-killing Wrath of God in favor of resource war winners like Plow Under. This might be right despite the fact that the CAL has pivotal Game One creatures like Birds of Paradise and the deadly Robert Maher, Jr. Moreover, a Rift/Slide player could expect the CAL to bring in even more creatures, specifically 3-4 copies of Loxodon Hierarch.

The sideboard strategy on both parts would of course put a lot of pressure on the Slide player. He would have fewer ways to defend himself against the game's most fundamental sort of threat because of the need to fight enchantments and lands, but would be facing bigger and deadlier combat creatures. Surely an advantage can be found via this imbalance.

To show what a spectacular cure-all Loxodon Hierarch is, it is important to talk about what kind of deck Slide is. Rift/Slide is anything but offensive. Its way to win is largely passive – card drawing and creature kill – and Loxodon Hierarch is an ideal swap. As we said in the previous section, the Hierarch is ideal against an offensive deck like Boros Deck Wins: a big blocker that demands two or more non-Goblin Legionnaire cards, an answer to the opponent's cards in hand, and ultimately a way to win. That it is effective and disruptive against a non-proactive deck is a huge testament to the Hierarch's cure-all status.

Olivier Ruel - CAL

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The Out-of-place Finisher

If you were paying attention during the Extended PTQ season, you know that I thought that U/G Heartbeat of Spring was one of the best decks in the format, and highly underplayed given the competitive landscape and what was available for most of the Qualifiers. Unlike the CAL, which was a mid-season development, and Friggorid, which appeared only at the end of the format, players everywhere should have known how good this powerhouse was via Chris “Star Wars Kid” McDaniel's performance in Los Angeles.

That said, one deck that rose up in the middle, towards the end, of the season was Rift/Slide. Ben Stark's PTQ deck from Florida was the inspiration for many of the New York/New Jersey Pros at Worlds and I played the archetype myself in a PTQ.

Astral Slide got many new tools since its dominance in Onslaught Block, including Life from the Loam, which allowed the deck to recourse its Tranquil Thickets and other cycling lands. The deck had the option to play Loxodon Hierarch as a super Teroh's Faithful, which was a fairly late development for the deck (I, for example, was stuck on Pulse of the Fields). The problem match-ups for the deck were Tooth and Nail and Heartbeat of Spring. We eventually went down the road of siding lots of Plow Unders and even Boils. When brainstorming on how to beat Heartbeat, I laid out my deck and said “I think I can slow them down with four Boils and four Plow Unders, but I'm taking out an awful lot of Lightning Rifts to make room. They will be able to come back with mana accelerators and card drawing… How will I win in time?”

Tsai, at GP Milwaukee '02My friend Tony “the Shark” Tsai, one of the big stars of the early Grand Prix circuit smiled and said, “What about the Hierarchs? They do everything!”

And he was probably right. I have been contextualizing Loxodon Hierarch as this panacea that generates card advantage and tempo and can fit into interesting places in deck interactions, but at the end of the day, it is also a highly efficient creature. Even without any additional text, a 4/4 for four mana is a fantastic deal. There was a time when Pro players were running Nettletooth Djinn at the Standard Pro Tour! In a match-up like Astral Slide v. Heartbeat, where life gain is completely irrelevant, you can still draw utility from the Elephant of the hour. When you are destroying the opponent's mana position and Disenchanting his key permanents, you have a strong advantage in the short term. The problem is that Heartbeat can win so quickly against a goldfish it is almost implied that a Gifts Ungiven after a Tribe Elder or two will pull it out of the woods, even given a ton of disruption. What Slide needs is a way to win fast enough. The Hierarch isn't Jackal Pup fast, but in the context of a disarmed enemy… The Rock's de facto kill speed (given all that deck's disruption) can be good enough.

Josh Ravitz played a version of the deck at Worlds this year, just missing out on Top 8 (and taking a loss to the mirror in the process). He later wrote that he was quite pleased with the deck and would play it again in a heartbeat. Here's the listing for his deck, which has the Hierarchs in the board:

Josh Ravitz's Top 16 Extended deck from Worlds

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The New Standard for the Current Standard:

Not surprisingly, Loxodon Hierarch has shaken the earth in Standard as well as Extended. Check out World Champion Katsuhiro Mori's Standard deck:

Katsuhiro Mori

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Thanks Hierarch!Four Elephants are once again a key to a successful deck's ability to compete. Initially, I thought that despite the traditional interaction between Red and Green creatures, Boros Deck Wins might be able to overwhelm Ghazi-Glare with beatdown and burn… Until my friend Tim McKenna pointed out Glare's ability to win the game on turn two.

“What does Boros do about Congregation at Dawn for three Loxodon Hierarchs?”

4/4s are great to begin with against 1/1, 2/1, and 2/2 threats… but with 12 free life attached? Good luck with that “Char” plan.

In this deck, Loxodon Hierarch's other ability even comes into play. Usually we just drift past that sacrifice text (unless we are trying to keep the counters off a Jitte or some such), but in Ghazi-Glare, the Hierarch can even save a swarm of Saprolings from Wildfire or Pyroclasm, and that is a good thing.

I mean… What kind of cure-all can't also prevent mass removal spells?

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