Ah yes, the build-around-me uncommon. After you play Limited Magic for a few years, you start to notice things like build-around-me uncommons. After your twentieth draft in a given format, the "normal" archetypes may start to lose their novelty, and you'll start looking around for something else to experiment with—a way to go deeper.
A build-around-me uncommon is a card that is not very good on its own but begs to have a deck built around it. This usually involves taking some risk both in the draft portion and the games themselves. The reward is the interesting part. Sometimes it's huge, allowing you to hit from an angle that the format isn't ready for. Other times, the risk doesn't pan out and you end up building around an effect that isn't worth it.
One of my favorite build-around-me uncommons showed up in my favorite draft format ever—triple Innistrad:
Innistrad was a deep format and it took a while before my eye started wandering toward new strategies. Around my eightieth draft, I finally went all-in on Burning Vengeance. Flashback was a big mechanic in that set; it lets you play cards from your graveyard. So the key was to get a Burning Vengeance and then take all the flashback cards you could get.
You would even play some flashback cards you wouldn't normally consider playing. This is the "going deep" part of the equation. You're forced to think outside the box and venture into new territory. I used the knowledge I had with the Burning Vengeance deck in Draft to turn a mediocre Sealed pool into a Day-Two Sealed pool at Grand Prix Austin that year.
Going deep has its rewards, but you do have to keep yourself from going too deep.
This week, we have two new Khans of Tarkir previews for you, both of which fall under the category of build-around-me uncommon.
First up is Goblinslide:
Let's get down to business.
First things first, Goblinslide (and our other preview, Quiet Contemplation) doesn't affect the board the turn it comes into play. The reason I mention this first is because it's the most important thing to remember about these cards. They come with a significant drawback. If you have ever been on the wrong end of a turn-two, -three, and -four creature curve-out in Limited, you'll know that taking a turn off to do almost nothing isn't an option.
So we'll keep that in mind as we continue. But what is the upside here? Free creatures! We have discussed in the past how important creatures are in Limited. They are easily the single most important card type in Limited, and this cards gives you them for free...ish.
We get 1/1 Goblins with haste. (Of note: unlike some of their cousins, they don't have to attack.)
Those 1/1s with haste are pretty good at keeping the pressure flowing, and can create some interesting blocking situations, as well.
Additionally, we can get these at instant speed, provided the noncreature spell we cast is also an instant. This could change combat math for our opponent, who isn't expecting a new attacker. Or maybe make an unexpected blocker that jumps in front of some huge creature on our opponent's turn.
It adds an additional colorless mana to each of our noncreature spells if we want the token, which could be awkward. It also puts an emphasis on cheap noncreature spells so you can pay to get the Goblin as often as possible. In order to maximize on a card like this, you have to get every bit of value possible.
Speaking of getting every bit of value out of the card, it brings us to our next preview, Quiet Contemplation:
Now we're really talking. Quiet Contemplation "freezes" (frosts?) a creature for a turn cycle, similar to the ability from Frost Titan or Frost Lynx. This is a pure tempo play, but can be a very strong one if timed properly. And by "timed properly" I mean "done at instant speed," which you can totally do with this card.
When you think about it, it's quite powerful: if you cast an instant on the opponent's turn, before he or she declares attackers, you get to lock down a creature for an attack, a block, another attack, and another block.
In some game states, that's essentially acting as removal.
It does fall under the same warnings that Goblinslide does: It doesn't affect the board the turn you cast it, and you have to be able to play cheap noncreature spells in order to pay for the extra colorless mana. But once things get rolling, Quiet Contemplation feels like it will pull its weight and then some.
The effect from this card isn't quite worth a full card on its own. It's probably closer to half a card's worth of value. (This is a common tool for figuring out how good an effect is—figuring out if you would play a card that simply had this effect on it.) But if you can get multiple activations going, you can quickly climb the ranks and get two or three cards' worth out of this.
Where Does it Fit?
This brings us to an important question about both of these cards: what kind of deck wants a card like this?
Goblinslide seems better in an aggressive deck. If you get ahead on board with a few attacking creatures and can turn your removal spells into more (hasty) attacking creatures, you'll close out the game in short order. It also lets all of your pump spells, card-draw spells, and combat tricks add to the beatdown. If you have a way to augment all of your creatures (an "anthem" effect, as we call them), it gets even better.
Goblinslide | Art by Kev Walker
We have also seen that the Mardu have the raid mechanic on their side, which rewards attacking. Sometimes you may want to trigger raid but won't have any great attacks. This is precisely what Goblins specialize in. They will happily run headfirst into a bigger creature just to trigger your raid effect.
With Quiet Contemplation, things aren't as clear. I could see this seeing play in an aggressive, tempo-based deck. Acting as a source of repeatable "removal" could easily keep the opponent off balance long enough to finish the game. Especially when you consider that removal spells will trigger Quiet Contemplation. Imagine using a removal spell to kill a key blocker, paying the cost for Quiet Contemplation, and freezing another one. Insane.
But there is another use for this card that I could see: control decks. Normally, temporary effects like freezing or bouncing creatures aren't great for the control player. They intend to make the game go long, and that means the spells they play have to deal with creatures permanently, else they just come back and fight another day.
Quiet Contemplation | Art by Magali Villeneuve
But control decks also tend to run more noncreature spells than your average Limited deck. And if you can consistently keep something (the opponent's best thing) locked down for most of the game, I could see it seeing play. Again, when you turn your card-draw spell into a lockdown play, and your actual removal into a lockdown play, it adds up. This will scale in a similar way to a tapper.
The big question is if there is an aggressive enough archetype in Khans of Tarkir to punish taking the turn off you cast Quiet Contemplation. After all, this card is way better against decks that present big, but relatively few, threats. It's not very effective against a deck based around tokens, for example.
So these are powerful cards, with Quiet Contemplation being a bit more powerful than Goblinslide from what I can tell in the early stages. The big question that you should be asking yourself here is, "How many noncreature spells do I have to play in my deck to get my value out of these?"
It's a tough question. On one hand, if you trigger these two or three times a game, you are probably at least breaking even on the transaction. On the other hand, how do you know you'll be able to do that? The fact is that you won't know. You are taking a risk by playing this strategy, and you have to accept that. There are a few ways to mitigate the risk and maximize on value.
First, I would look for cards that are effectively both creatures and spells at the same time. Cards like Raise the Alarm and Triplicate Spirits from Magic 2015 come to mind as recent examples. Cards like this will be able to trigger your enchantment while also adding to your board in a meaningful way. Mardu Charm out of Khans of Tarkir, for example, is one such way to make creatures with spells.
Next, as I've noted before, it's important to keep an eye on the cost of the spell. Expensive noncreature spells will be harder to trigger in tight games, so put a premium on cheap noncreature spells.
Another cool thing is...these trigger each other. You could just build some insane brew with as many of them as you can get your hands on, and they work great in multiples, too! The mana starts to get a bit restrictive at some point, but you get the idea.
These are potentially powerful, but they aren't called "build-around-me" uncommons for nothing. They ask a lot of you. They cost three mana (an important turn in most games of Limited) and don't affect the board at all the turn you cast them. This is not to be ignored!
They also demand that you play a significant number of noncreature spells in your deck. Most Limited decks have fifteen to eighteen creatures. This doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for noncreature spells. And remember, the card itself is taking one of those slots.
Then they also ask that you have an extra one colorless mana when you cast your noncreature spell.
They ask a lot. But they also give you back a lot, particularly if you can get multiples and especially if you build your deck appropriately around them.
Plus, they look super fun and, after about twenty drafts, I'm guessing they are exactly what I'll be looking for.
Until next week!