The Role of Finishers

Posted in Latest Developments on January 1, 2016

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

One of the most important kinds of cards we put into Magic sets are finishers—that is, the kind of spell (usually a creature) that sits on the top of a deck's curve and acts as a way to win the game all by itself. It is certainly true that the emergence of planeswalkers over the past several years has removed some of the necessity of these kinds of creatures, but we still make sure they exist within the format. We want to give decks an attractive and awesome option as the top end of their curve, something that they can always hope to topdeck as the game goes on longer and longer. These are not the trinket-like card-advantage creatures that decks tend to fill themselves with. Instead, they do something powerful and do it well. You don't usually want to fill your deck up with them, because you don't want that many high-drop creatures, but most decks want one of some kind.

Most finisher creatures do not provide the long-term utility or card advantage of planeswalkers, but they have maintained their place in the Magic ecosystem by providing that final oomph that most decks need to either turn the corner or fully close the game out. We print a pretty decent number of these cards, and they can vary quite a bit depending on the deck they go in as well as the strategy they support. Baneslayer Angel, for example, is just as much of a finisher as Craterhoof Behemoth or Hero of Oxid Ridge. All of them serve very different roles, and are expected to go into very different decks. Morphling is perhaps the most classic of all; it's versatile and hard to kill, but also provides blue decks with a way to both block and have a real offense. Craterhoof, on the other hand, requires a lot of setup. You are just not going to play it in an almost-creatureless control deck. It doesn't block well, but it does tend to add an additional 30–300 trample damage to the board pretty quickly. If you can't win through a full Craterhoof attack, something very strange has happened.

I included Hero of Oxid Ridge on this list because finishers are not just very high drops—they sometimes come in more aggressive packages to fill the top end of an aggressive deck. Hero of Oxid Ridge is pretty unremarkable as the only creature on your board if you attack with it, but with your average red deck's strategy of putting out a lot of cheap creatures and the frequent strategy of playing walls or other cheap creatures to trade off with the red deck, it offers a way to push through those last few points of damage.

A Short History of Finishers

A few years ago, we printed the following card as a finisher for control decks:

Ætherling was largely in response to Supreme Verdict keeping the regular batch of creature finishers from being able to lock up a game. It provided a hard-hitting way to end the game, and one that could get through blockers and dodge removal, but it was mana-intensive. In a format with huge card-advantage swings like Sphinx's Revelation, Ætherling allowed decks that were down quite a bit of card advantage to force through a threat that could still win the game.

Last year, we made another one.

Pearl Lake Ancient, which saw a fair amount of play in Khans of Tarkir Standard, was less resilient than Ætherling (although it can dodge Wraths), but it made up for that with its uncounterability and by being much less mana-reliant. The downside was, of course, that it was much harder to push through by itself to win the game. Acting as a removal spell, though, did help out quite a bit, and prowess allowed for some surprising blowouts in combat.

Oath of the Gatewatch has yet another one, intended as a powerful answer for control mirrors, and something that is very difficult for midrange decks to answer. I present to you, Sphinx of the Final Word:

Built Tough

One of the things that separates Sphinx of the Final Word from other similar finishers that you have the option of playing is how tough it is. With 5 toughness, it is large enough to survive a Languish or block a Siege Rhino or a Mantis Rider. Because it's hexproof, not only does traditional removal not hurt it, it also manages to not get shrunk by Jace, Telepath Unbound. Maybe it can't trade with an Ojutai, Soul of Winter, but that is about it. If you are looking for a powerful way to end the game, and you don't have to worry about leaving countermagic up to protect it, Sphinx of the Final Word is the final word. (I'm so sorry for that one.)

And unlike Pearl Lake Ancient and Ætherling, Sphinx of the Final Word also doesn't require that you ever put it too far into harm's way. While it can get taken down by an End Hostilities, Crackling Doom, or Foul-Tongue Invocation, it is otherwise almost impossible to deal with. Once you have the Sphinx on the table, you can worry about using the other spells in your hand to win the game—and those spells are going to be even harder for your opponent to deal with, since they are now uncounterable.

Winning the War

When electing to include Sphinx of the Final Word in your deck, you get huge advantages against other decks that aim to use countermagic. While most control decks need to dedicate a lot of their time to saving up mana and dispels to win late game counter wars over huge haymaker plays, Sphinx of the Final Word lets you take control and win them all. Playing a Sphinx with nine mana up and a Disdainful Stroke in your hand means that your opponent won't be resolving that Ugin or End Hostilities. Once you untap with it, you can easily get all of your important spells through, while leaving your opponent with a hand full of useless counters.

Take, for example, one of the decks that made the Top 8 at Grand Prix Kōbe in the hands of Pavel Matousek.

Pavel Matousek's Eldrazi Ramp—Top 8, Grand Prix Kōbe 2015

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Sphinx of the Final Word is great in a deck like this, as either a main deck or sideboard card. The Sphinx's body, especially when ramped out, provides a very real clock, and making all of your spells uncounterable means that your Part the Waterveils (awakened or not) will move you quickly toward winning the game.

The Sphinx has applications beyond just being the trumpiest trump of all in control mirrors—it's hexproof and has a huge body that also provides a great way over many of the current midrange builds. Midrange decks tend to win through attrition, and they do so by having a lot of two-for-ones and removal for their opponent's threats. Besides the aforementioned Crackling Doom, there isn't a lot the midrange decks can do about a Sphinx of the Final Word. Utter End doesn't hit it, nor does Murderous Cut or Ob Nixilis Reignited. Your goal when playing against these decks is to punish them as much as possible for having a lot of removal in Game 1, and make them decide how much stuff like Crackling Doom to leave in for Games 2 and 3.

To give you an idea of what our Sphinx-related control decks looked like, here are some options. As reminder, Future Future League decks are often unpolished and contain a lot of cards that changed by the time they hit the real world—so don't be surprised if the decks look a little bit off.

Blue-Red Control

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Creature (1)
1 Sphinx of the Final Word
Other (9)
59 Cards

Esper Colorless Control

Download Arena Decklist

That's it for this time. Join me next week for a deeper look at Oath of the Gatewatch's development.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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