Son of House of Cards

Posted in Feature on January 10, 2006

By Chris Millar

Hello and good luck! Two months ago, content manager Scott Johns bargained for my release from a Northern Ontario labour camp where I had spent the previous six years ice-mining for the Canadian government. Despite my wild-eyed stare and frost-caked beard (or, perhaps, because of them), he asked me if I would like to be the peg-legged and patch-eyed captain of the good ship House of Cards.

“You've got to be kidding me!” I thought to myself and my psychic. For a kitchen-table magician with half a knack (and three-quarters of a penchant) for writing about the game, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was so enthusiastic, in fact, that I had already hacksawed my leg right through to the femur, bought a parrot, and scooped out my left eye with a melon-baller before Scott told me that the whole “ship's captain” thing was just a metaphor. Oops! Fortunately, my leg has completely healed, and as you can probably tell from my author photo, the glass-eye is barely noticeable.

It was not long after these self-inflicted wounds had healed that my House of Cards author-training began in earnest, beginning with a close reading of the Comprehensive Rules. I'm halfway through, and I've got to say, “Wow, what a thrilling document!” I just got to the part where Marlena becomes possessed by evil spirits, and in order to save her, Roman, Patch, and Robert Scorpio have to free a witch doctor imprisoned on Stefano's island. Shhh! Don't tell me how it ends!

Unfortunately, I had to leave Scott's secret mountain lair before my training was complete. My friends, and my contractual obligations, needed me … to build some decks. This is, after all, the “Johnny” column. So, in addition to the cold, hard, factual information I have provided above, I will attempt to introduce myself by taking you on a tragical and historical tour of some of my favourite cards and the decks they spawned.

Origins of a Johnny

Johnny, Combo Player
Now, I say that I'm a Johnny, but that was not always the case. I used to be a Timmy who thought he was a Spike … if you can call controlling creatures with a Prodigal Sorcerer, a Sorceress Queen, and Jandor's Saddlebags “Spike-ish.” In my defense, I was also using Terror and Counterspell … but my Hypnotic Specters and Hymn to Tourach were sitting on the sidelines. I could beat up on my brothers' decks, with their Force of Nature and Personal Incarnations, but when I played other people, new people, it was a different story. After a string of complete blowout losses at the hands of Hypnos and Hymns, I was forced back to the drawing board. For some strange reason, I decided to build a series of decks using every single card that I owned. Nowadays, that'd be a completely absurd task, due to the size of my collection, but at the time I only had enough cards for half-a-dozen decks.

It was a revelation.

During this period, due to the constraints of the challenge I'd presented to myself (every card had to fit in some deck, somehow) I discovered that Orcish Artillery and Circle of Protection: Red was a combo. Then I found out that Channel, Drain Life, and Initiates of the Ebon Hand could form the basis for a fun and powerful deck, provided you had four Channels, four Demonic Tutors, and complete ignorance of the Banned and Restricted List.

With one of the decks, I found a home for all the (what I thought were) lame Enchant Lands I had in my collection. On their own they were terrible, but together – oh yes together - they were positively mediocre!

Believe it or not, I'm completely rewriting history here to make myself look good. The deck, as I had actually built it, was approximately a kersquillion times worse. No exaggeration. Chop about six lands off the bottom of that sucker, delete the Icy Manipulators (I didn't own any at the time), and replace them with Power Leaks and more Feedbacks, and you can begin to imagine the level of unplayability of that deck.

Despite its utter lack of success, however, this deck was worth building for a couple reasons. First of all, the day I won a game solely because of Feedback damage - my opponent watching helplessly as his life total ticked down from twenty to zero - is a day that lives in infamy, or possibly famy, I'm not sure. In any case, it's legendary among the players in my playgroup, and it's currently the benchmark for humiliating defeats.

The second reason that deck was worth building is that it represented my discovery of what the cool kids are calling “deck synergy.” Sure, I knew about Merfolk Assassin and War Barge, Nettling Imp and Sengir Vampire, or Prodigal Sorcerer, Sorceress Queen, and Jandor's Saddlebags – but I'd never put together a deck where every card had a minor effect on the game, but taken as a whole, formed an actual strategy (in this case, mana denial, leading to a sort of Death of a Thousand Pings).

I wonder what an Enchant Land deck would look like today?

Mi Casa, Su Casa

Three Dreams
Luckily for the Enchant Land enthusiasts among us, Ravnica brought with it the tutoring power of Three Dreams, a card which, in one fell swoop, obsolesced the Arabian Nights card, Two Dreams, as well as Antiquities' That Crazy Dream I Had About the Octopus Riding Four Bicycles At Once.

Three Dreams is pretty versatile, considering that you are limited to finding Auras, an Enchantment sub-type. You can, in effect, search for creatures (Living Terrain, the Genjus from Betrayers of Kamigawa, Squirrel Nest), creature “removal” (Pacifism, Cage of Hands, etc.), enchantment removal (Tattoo Ward), mana acceleration (Wild Growth, Overgrowth, etc.), and if that is not enough, you can also gain control of just about any permanent your opponents play (with Annex, Persuasion, Confiscate, etc.). I was hoping to discover a three-Aura combo that could be assembled all at once by Three Dreams, but I had no luck. One thing I did come up with was the Odyssey-block duo of Animal Boneyard and Chamber of Manipulation. Not too shabby, methinks.

When I was looking at what Auras were available on Magic Online, one card in particular raised its hand enthusiastically and called out, “Me! Me! Pick me!”

I don't know if it's the fact that I'd never seen the card before, if it's the flavourful way for white and green to “steal” land (and for less mana than Annex to boot!), or if it's the psychedelic zebra in the artwork, but I knew immediately that it was going into the deck. Wellspring has the added benefit of ramping you up to the five mana necessary for Three Dreams (provided you hit all of your land drops).

With all of that in mind, here's what I came up with:

The basic gameplan with this deck is to spend the first couple turns developing your mana until you can cast Three Dreams. Use your Wellsprings to steal Islands (or other blue-producing lands) if you can. You'll need the blue mana, and you'll get a quasi-Defense Grid effect by cutting down on the mana your opponent has available during your turn. By the time you're filling your hand with Auras you should have some idea of what kind of deck your opponent is using. If you're facing a creature-heavy deck, Animal Boneyard, Chamber of Manipulation, and Genju of the Cedars are a good trio to fetch. For awhile, I thought that the Boneyard-Chamber combo would be dead against more controllish decks which had fewer, if any, creatures, but then I realized that you could cast your Genjus on an opponent's Islands, Forests, or Plains. You can then animate it, steal it with the Chamber, and sacrifice it to the Boneyard. You're up a bunch of life, they're down a land, and, as a bonus, your Genju will go back to your hand so you can do it all again!

Get Your Arch On

Riptide Shapeshifter
Whenever the big-wigs in Magic Creative unleash a new creature-type, one of my favourite cards becomes even, uh, favourite-er. That card: Riptide Shapeshifter! This underappreciated gem from Onslaught is the kind of tutor-with-a-twist that gets my Johnny-brain whirring. I'm not sure where the Johnny-brain is located on my body, but it sure makes a lot of racket, wherever it is. The beauty of this card is that with each new set it gets better and better. The latest two blocks - Ravnica and Kamigawa block before it - have ushered in a handful of brand-new creature-types, such as Zubera, Moonfolk, and Archon. Others - like Sphinx, Gargoyle, Advisor, and Vedalken - have each appeared before in various sets throughout the years, but they don't usually show up in large numbers and are usually interesting cards for a toolbox.

Riptide Shapeshifter is best when fetching creatures with high mana costs, since you're basically paying nine mana to put the creature into play anyway (five for the Shapeshifter and four more to use its ability). Since you can only play with four of them, I decided it'd be best to double up on ways to cheat the fatties into play and included a reanimation co-theme, with Hell's Caretaker and Zombify. I avoided some interesting creature-types (Gorgon, Angel, Wurm) because they just didn't fit the colour scheme and I'd prefer to be able to hard cast the creatures if need be. As it stands, with the aid of Spectral Searchlights, all of the creatures can be played from your hand, although Blazing Archon might pose a bit of a problem in that respect.

Floating-Dream Zubera and Surveilling Sprite serve as early defense and fodder for Hell's Caretaker. Block aggressively with them. They are both fetchable by Riptide Shapeshifter (name Zubera or Faerie) in a pinch, although I'm not sure what kind of pinch you'd have to be in for their particular services to be relevant. Mana Leak should help you stall long enough to get either Blazing Archon or Nullstone Gargoyle into play, depending on what kind of deck you're facing.

A neat card to tutor up (on your turn) is Gleancrawler. Name Insect, since naming Horror might land you a Hell's Caretaker instead. At the end of your turn, Gleancrawler's ability will trigger and return the Shapeshifter to your hand, even though the Gleancrawler didn't “see” it go to the graveyard. With a little help from Hell's Caretaker, the Vedalken Dismissers can lock your opponent out of playing new creatures. Uyo, Silent Prophet can provide you with some “Gotcha!” moments, if you find yourself with a Shapeshifter on the board and a ton of mana untapped. Likewise, I put in Michiko Konda, Truth Seeker in the deck strictly because I find it amusing to think about putting her into play with combat damage on the stack.

(Elvish) Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Congregation at Dawn
Like Three Dreams, Ravnica's Congregation at Dawn lets you search your library for three cards.

Unlike Three Dreams, those cards don't go into your hand, but on top of your library. Everyone and their dog knows what to do with cards in hand (Play 'em!), but what can you do with cards on top your library? Creature cards in particular?

Wait until your draw step so you can put them in your hand? Lame!

If you said put 'em directly into play with Call of the Wild, then you're my kind of person. If you didn't say that, you're probably still my kind of person. (I like a lot of different people. Except that guy. I'm not sure what his problem is.)

Call of the Wild
Call of the Wild is best in a deck packed with creatures, to maximize your chances of hitting one in the event that you haven't stacked the top of your library. At the same time, you're going to want to activate it often, especially after a Congregation at Dawn, to prevent you from drawing the creatures you searched for. This means we'll need some mana acceleration. Hmm … lots of creatures and lots of mana. That can only mean one thing … Elves! (The judges would also have accepted Snakes.)

Most of the Elves give you mana, others destroy problem artifacts and enchantments. Bloodline Shaman and Sylvan Messenger can take those Elves congregating on top of your library and put them into your hand. The big-boned creatures in the deck also form a sort of toolbox, although, admittedly, most are just there for their size. I like Chorus of the Conclave in this deck because it turns all of those early-game mana-accelerators into serious threats in the late-game.

In the absence of a Call of the Wild, you can use Congregation at Dawn to put a Thicket Elemental on top of whatever high-priced creature you want to put into play. Similarly, if you end up drawing your high-cost monsters, you still have some options in the form of Elvish Piper, Myojin of Life's Web, and Gate to the Aether - or you can just use some of that handy-dandy Elf-mana to hard cast them. That's what people did in the olden days, way back in 1995.

That's all the time we have for this week. Stay tuned for future episodes of House of Cards and, until next time, have fun searching your library!

Chris Millar

Many thanks go out to the most excellent editing duo at (where I made my Magic writing debut), Mssrs. William S. Ferrett, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Knutson.

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