In Sindication

Posted in Feature on March 29, 2006

By Chris Millar

Wow, Orzhov Week already? It seems like only eight weeks ago that it was Gruul Week. How time flies. The Black and White Guild (which may or may not be Red all over), the Orzhov Syndicate is in a battle to the death with the Selesnya Conclave for least pun-friendly of all of the Guildpact signatories. Okay, throw in the Azorius Senate and make it a triangle. What I'm trying to say is that this week you get a reprieve from the groan-tastic plays on words. Enjoy it while it lasts, pun-haters.

What do we know about the Orzhov? They're old, they love gold, get used to it. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that they're gold-diggers, but the Orzhov certainly seem to isolate themselves from the impoverished masses.

Concerns about gold aside, what do the “grey bags of flesh” of the Orzhov offer the deckbuilder, other than an appetite-ruining image? Let's have a look.

Come on and take a free-ride

One of my favourite decks of all time was a deck I built based around Judgment's Wormfang Drake. The deck was full of creatures with nifty comes-into-play abilities, like Man-o'-War, Scrivener, Ravenous Rats and others. You'd play one of these creatures, then remove it from the game with the Drake. Cavern Harpy would let you bounce the Drake back to your hand, and the creature would return to play, its ability triggering once again. If the game went on long enough, you could do this with Scrivener, fetching something like Memory Lapse or Repel, and essentially lock your opponent out of the game as you smashed face with your squadron of flyers. JMS wrote about a similar deck long ago.

What does this have to do with the Orzhov, you ask? Well, Standard features another undercosted 3/4 flying creature which encourages the abuse of comes-into-play abilities: Eiganjo Free-Riders from Saviors of Kamigawa. Earlier on, I tried to build an Eiganjo Free-Riders deck, but, to be honest, there really wasn't much to work with. Not only can't White creatures jump, but they also have a disappointing lack of variety in their comes-into-play abilities. As expected, there is the usual array of life-gainers (Teroh's Faithful and company), Enchantment killers (Aven Cloudchaser and cohorts), and a handful of other creatures with miscellaneous comes-into-play abilities (Enlistment Officer and comrades). That's pretty slim pickings. A friend of mine would no doubt be excited at the prospect of playing and replaying Teroh's Faithful, something he does in every imaginable way (Astral Slide, Dreams of the Dead, Recurring Nightmare). In multiplayer games, his life pad looks like a stock market ticker-tape. I can also imagine building a decent Soldier Tribal deck (Eiganjo Free-Riders, Enlistment Officer, and Aven Cloudchaser are all Soldiers), but I really couldn't see anything beyond that … until Guildpact. With the addition of the Haunt creatures, as well as Shrieking Grotesque, White (okay, White/Black) has a bunch of new weapons in its comes-into-play arsenal.

One of the key non-Guildpact creatures is Leonin Squire. Necrogen Spellbomb's instant-speed discard effect, and the ability to keep replaying Leonin Squire every turn because of the Eiganjo Free-Riders, allows you to a lock your opponent out of any future draws. If you fire off the Spellbomb during their draw-step, your opponent will be reduced to playing instants. It's a three-piece draw-step lock - which depends on two creatures - so it won't always be effective. Even if it's not a permanent lock, you can often disrupt your opponent long enough for your evasion creatures to deal a significant amount of damage. Sunbeam Spellbomb and the Orzhov-aligned cog, Moratorium Stone, give the Squire something else to do if it gets bored retrieving Necrogen Spellbombs.

Dimir House Guard serves a few purposes, as usual. The deck really depends on Eiganjo Free-Riders, so the House Guard acts as extra copies of this key creature. At the same time, it can be used to tutor up some “direct damage” (Blind Hunter) or some Enchantment removal (Aven Cloudchaser). More importantly, however, it can be used as a sacrifice outlet for stupid Hauntin' tricks. With one in play, Orzhov Pontiff can be a quasi-Overrun or a one-sided Infest. Just sacrifice the Pontiff to the House Guard, Haunt the House Guard, then sacrifice it to itself. The same thing works with Blind Hunter, turning the highway-robbing Bat into a pseudo-Soul Feast.

There used to be a few more Moratorium Stones in there, but in all of my games with the deck they rarely proved useful. With all the discard effects filling up the opponent's graveyard, you'd think it would be good, especially against some of the Dredge-based Extended decks floating around the Casual Room, but it never really worked out. Similarly, the Vindicates are certainly not essential, and could very well be Mortifies, or even Disenchants.

Skull (M/NM)

Skull Collector
Eiganjo Free-Riders' Black equivalent, Skull Collector, also gets a sizable boost from Guildpact. No longer reduced to returning rats of the Ravenous and Chittering varieties to your hand, the Ogre from Saviors has a new friend. Reader Efrén sent in a spiffy two-card combo that prevents your opponent from attacking you … for the rest of the game! The cards: Skull Collector and Guildpact's Revenant Patriarch. It's a little expensive (five mana per turn, more if you want to leave mana open to regenerate Skull Collector), but nonetheless effective.

The first incarnation of the deck could prevent the opponent from attacking, sure, but the combo proved to be so mana-intensive that it was hard to mount any offense of my own. I was playing against a Selesnya-wielding opponent the first time I won with the deck. He kept building up his forces with a pair of Selesnya Evangels as I (literally) prevented him from attacking for about twenty turns. Finally, I drew my single copy of Netherborn Phalanx to kill him in one fell swoop. It was kinda cool, but not something I expect to do very often. So I went back to the drawing board, also known as the Deck Editor. That's when I realized that Revenant Patriarch is a Spirit. Hmm. If only there was some way to take advantage of that. That's when I realized that I left the oven on! I immediately rushed home to turn it off. That's when I realized that I could put some of the Kamigawa Block Spiritcraft creatures into the deck (most notably, Thief of Hope), for some of that elusive, but oh-so-desirable cross-block synergy that Aaron Forsythe talked about recently. The Thief's life-drain ability, combined with the evasion, creature kill, and hand disruption of Keening Banshee and Infernal Kirin, should allow you win the damage race while your opponents sits there wondering where his attack step went. It's always in the last place you look.

Oyobi, Who Split the Heavens is the only creature in the deck that can't be returned to your hand with Skull Collector, but it fit in so well with the deck's plan (constantly replaying its Spirits) that I couldn't resist including it. It also has a nice way of breaking open creature stalemates. A lot of the other one-ofs (or, as I like to think of them, “fun-ofs”) are there just for kicks.

You can easily make this deck rare-free, since the key components are both uncommons. Will-o'-the-Wisp could easily become Plagued Rusalka, or Ghost-Lit Stalker, or even Kami of Ancient Law. The Infernal Kirins could be more Nekrataals or Ravenous Rats, and the creatures at the top end of the mana curve could just be more Phyrexian Gargantuas (a creature I've always liked).

Gatefinders, Gatekeepers

Celestial Gatekeeper
It's always nice when ideas I have, ideas readers send me, and the week's theme overlap. Everybody wins! I have to do less work, readers of the column get to share their ideas with other readers, and I have to do less work. It's the perfect formula. To illustrate, a reader named Geoff sent in a combo that I'm sure many of you have seen before: Onslaught powerhouse Patriarch's Bidding and Saviors of Kamigawa weakling Ashes of the Fallen. Bidding returns all creatures of the chosen type from your graveyard to play, and Ashes of the Fallen makes sure that all of the creatures in your graveyard are of the same type. At the time, I happened to be working on a similar deck that eschewed Patriarch's Bidding in favour of the un-beloved Legions Rare, Celestial Gatekeeper.

I kept Geoff's basic combo intact, squeezed in some Gatekeepers, and reworked the rest of the deck to fit this week's theme. In order to get the creatures I wanted into the graveyard, I called upon the usual suspects: Putrid Imp, Buried Alive, and Sickening Dreams. Scion of Darkness and the landcyclers (Twisted Abomination and Eternal Dragon) don't need any help getting themselves “killed.” Starlit Sanctum, Miren, the Moaning Well, Sanguine Praetor, and the aforementioned Sickening Dreams provide a few ways to get Celestial Gatekeeper into your graveyard from play. Debtors' Knell is there as a back-up.

Returning four Angels of Despair with Patriarch's Bidding seems outright cruel. Of course, returning four copies of Kokusho, the Evening Star would be even crueler, but who'd want to do that? That's so five expansions ago.

Even without Ashes of the Fallen, you can often cast Bidding naming Angel, Zombie, or even Avatar and be in great shape. Celestial Gatekeeper, on the other hand, really needs Ashes of the Fallen to be good. Sorry, I meant “good.”

Here's the version I was tinkering with originally. The deck isn't Black/White, but I might as well include it anyway. It uses the Grozoth “engine” to fill your hand and graveyard full of ridiculously large, ridiculously powerful, and ridiculously expensive creatures. The über-cute Pariah's Shield + Celestial Gatekeeper combo makes an appearance, a combo I shamelessly stole from another old JMS column. Of course, Jay used Pariah instead, largely because Pariah's Shield hadn't been invented yet. It's not so much a combo as just a clever way to get the Celestial Gatekeeper into the graveyard. Read the Runes and the two lands I mentioned before are your primary sacrifice outlets. Darksteel Gargoyle and Pariah's Shield is a much saucier combination, and essentially makes you immune to damage.

With all the rares, it really isn't modestly priced, but it sure is fun!

Put it in Reverse

One of the more underrated cards from Ravnica, in my view, is Moonlight Bargain. There has been a little talk of using it in mono-Black control decks to mimic Necropotence or Yawgmoth's Bargain, or in reanimator-style decks where you can use Moonlight Bargain to fish for a reanimation spell, while at the same time dropping fatties into the graveyard. Other than that, however, there hasn't been much discussion of the card. Five cards for five mana is a great deal, but to do that it'll cost you a whopping ten life. This got me thinking, “Is there a deck that wants to dump cards in the graveyard and lose a lot of life?” I discovered that indeed there is. Another largely unloved Ravnica rare, Sins of the Past, certainly wants to see cards dumped in the graveyard, preferably big and tasty sorceries. Sorceries like, say, Reverse the Sands, which coincidently loves it when you are a low life-total. With Sins of the Past, you get your Sands for a Bargain. You know, for dirt cheap. If everything goes according to plan (i.e. you get lucky and your opponent cooperates), you can win on turn 5 or 6 – Moonlight Bargain on turn 4 with the help of a Signet, followed by Sins of the Past targeting Reverse the Sands on turn 5. Hopefully at this point your opponent has done enough damage to you that you can pay enough life with Moonlight Bargain to get yourself down to one. Then, hopefully, you played a Pillory of the Sleepless on one of your opponent's creatures on turn 3. That way, he will lose that one life you just traded him at the beginning of his upkeep. If that doesn't work, Orzhova, the Church of Deals can, uh, deal the remaining point, and if that doesn't work, you can request the services of the pesky little Bile Urchin. Wrath of God is there as a panic button, but also to allow you be more in control of your life total. With Reverse the Sands, you want your life total to drop, but you want to do it on your own schedule. Wrath helps you do this, and it also makes a great target for Sins of the Past.

There's probably a better kill card than Bile Urchin, but is there a more humiliating one? From what I can tell, it's the least expensive way for Black or White to deal one “damage” (technically, the loss of one life). With all the life-gain in the format, it's often necessary to cast Reverse the Sands and kill your opponent in the same turn, to avoid giving your opponent the opportunity to untap and cast Lightning Helix, or use his Starved Rusalka, or what-have-you. Bile Urchin also has the benefit of being completely random and nigh-unforeseeable. Your opponents on Magic Online will love that sort of thing.

Until next time, go for the gold!

Chris Millar

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