(Van)Guarding (in) the Future

Posted in Serious Fun on October 12, 2010

Sometimes I get a little nostalgic. And by "a little" I really mean "deeply and distractingly." Enjoying something for a few years will do that to anyone. Yet while Scars of Mirrodin has been quite a trip down my fond memories of experiencing Mirrodin, my brain has, apparently, decided that it's not enough.

It wanted something more. Something older. Something no longer borrowed. And I'm not talking about a wedding.

I'm talking about Vanguard.

    A Guarded Past

Vanguard is an interesting product. Like some sort of proto-Archenemy-meets-Planechase-meets-EDH mix of powerful effects and personal flavor, Vanguard was something of a novelty when I played. It was, unfortunately, something that turned most of my group off and it was quickly left behind.

But the fuzzy memory of getting lucky, in my mind, to play as Orim still rings today. Maybe it was the idea of a character I had only read about in flavor text being my helper, or the fact that there was so much more going on in our multiplayer games thanks to the unique effects everyone had. Something grabbed on and held tight.

I recently had the opportunity to acquire a complete set of Vanguard: one copy of every card from each of the four sets. While I'd love to be able to give credit to a "mysterious and generous donor" that provided me with all the cards, the fact is that I went through the mundane means of lucking into a store that had such a set for sale.

Although if I could ever get the key to the underground bunker filled with copies of Black Lotus and Time Walk ...

All silliness aside, here's a breakdown of how Vanguard works if you're not familiar.


In Brief:Vanguard is a casual variant format that lets you play as a character, in paper form from The Weatherlight Saga or digitally as a wider variety of characters and personas. Your starting hand and life total are modified, and an additional ability is applied or available only for you. Like other variants, it's best played as multiplayer with a wide variety of decks and characters present.

Rules Rundown: Each player chooses or is randomly assigned an avatar card. Each card comes with up to three changes for that player:

  1. Your starting life total can be modified from 20.
  2. Your starting hand and maximum hand size may also be modified from seven; note that mulligans still affect your hand as normal.
  3. You have a unique ability, which could be static, activated, or triggered, that applies only for you.

There are no specific deck restrictions or banned list for Vanguard. Note that certain avatars were released in paper, card-based form and others are only available through trading for them on Magic Online.

Pros: For anyone who has enjoyed EDH, Planechase, or Archenemy, Vanguard is another way to dive into both wild and wacky Magic and dabble with potentially unbalanced and powerful effects. It can even be layered onto these other ways to play!

Each avatar's ability provides an opportunity to build a deck suited best to take advantage of it or benefit most from what it does. With the wide variety of characters and abilities there is a lot of room to build around.

Cons:Vanguard cards are pretty rare to come across these days. There are no new Vanguard cards being released onlinecards being released online and finding the physical set in your everyday local game store is highly unusual. Because of their rarity, especially particularly rare or desirable ones, they can be difficult to acquire and find opponents to play.

While every avatar is unique these were not put through the same levels of depth and testing as what a whole set experiences. As such there are certainly a few avatars that feel very powerful compared to most of the alternatives, and that some avatars have very weak and narrow abilities. Balancing these two extremes against each other may not be easy for your group to handle.

The biggest draw for Vanguard for me is the same that draws me to EDH: building around a central focus. With the always on or accessible ability the chosen avatar provides it's natural to grab at it for deck building.

Since the Phyrexians are back on center stage of Magic villainy, let's take a look at one of the first named baddies from Phyrexia: Gix.

Mix with Gix

Download Arena Decklist

With a splash of things old and new, this deck is built completely around the ability Gix grants. Like a true Phyrexian you can continuously reprocess things from the graveyard to your hand to use over and over as needed.

Since we'll be wanting to use Gix's ability as early and often as possible every nonland card is a creature, and a large chunk of the creatures accelerate mana. Sakura-Tribe Elder and Diligent Farmhand are the easiest to get going, but Yavimaya Elder can give us some card draw once we have enough mana.

Since we can reuse creatures repeatedly I've dumped a laundry list of critters with effects into the deck.

Of course, I don't mind having weird hands filled with one-ofs of creatures from across Magic. There's a lot of ways to approach Gix, including my first thought of piling Shriekmaws and Bone Shredders with some Painter's Servants and creatures with fear (but not intimidate as it works a little different with Painter's Servant around!).

Other avatars provide a completely different set of ideas to work with; let's take a look at a less obvious avatar: Mirri.

Beating Rainbow

Download Arena Decklist

Mirri opens up a world of multicolor casting, essentially turning every basic land into a painless City of Brass. There are a lot of things that can be done with having any color of mana on command but I decided to stick to the path of piling on the gold.

Creatures like Grixis Grimblade and Coiling Oracle give you something to do as early as turn two and it exploded from there: Sprouting Thrinax and Woolly Thoctar as well as a split decision of every "charm" I like. Knight of New Alara pumps our already strong team, which includes a short list of color-dense powerhouses like Maelstrom Archangel and Cromat.

Teneb, the Harvester and Yore-Tiller Nephilim get into the graveyard game and Jenara, Asura of War can be the mana dump needed to rule the skies. Finally, Etched Oracle should always give us a four-card jump to the hand if needed.

And if you're curious as to why I picked the lands to be just Plains it's simple: there are a dearth of creatures with plainswalk. I'm sure using any combination of other basics is just fine too.

    A Dish Best Served with Dice

There are dozens more avatars that can be used, built around or not, and having these shiny new things in hand made it next to impossible to finally put it in action. Rolling out the stack to a few friends at the shop we decided to dig into Vanguard with some everyday multiplayer decks.

AdamStarkeQuest for Ula's Temple
JohnSliver Queen, Brood MotherSlivers
KevinOracleBlack-Backed Sacrifice
TroyBarrinSelesnya Good Stuff

We set the turn order up and I was going first meaning that I would pick my avatar last; choosing in reverse turn order seemed fine. Troy was very pleased to be going last and readily scooped up one of his favorites, Barrin.

Kevin hadn't seen Vanguard before so he took a long time to filter through everything before he finally settled on Oracle.

John did take nearly as long as Kevin to find his avatar. While we didn't specifically share what our decks were, John's grab of Sliver Queen, Brood Mother was a giant neon sign pointing in one direction.

Since I wanted to see as much of my deck as possible I picked Starke to help me get the job done.

Normally these games start off a bit slowly, but we had a lot of action right off the bat. Thanks to Starke I had a turn-one Quest for Ula's Temple, and on turn two John had Crystalline Sliver and Kevin found Tortured Existence. Powerful pieces for three of our respective decks were in place by the second turn!

The following turn had everyone finally get in on the creature game with the notable being my Coralhelm Commander, John's Mnemonic Sliver, and Kevin's Brindle Boar. The turn after had quite a flurry of action drop in as I started to get counters on my quest and John cast a Muscle Sliver to start the aggression against Kevin.

Kevin fought back when he plied a Fleshbag Marauder but Troy had other plans and used Barrin's ability to try to bounce Kevin's Brindle Boar. After a moment of thought Kevin just sacrificed the Boar to pick up some life.

When the turn wheeled back to me my upkeep found my third counter for the quest! It was Kraken time! To make things even better I paid the full price for a Mulldrifter and drew a Deep-Sea Kraken and Wrexial, the Risen Deep. I started things off at the end of my turn with the ever-classy Inkwell Leviathan.

John added a Telekenetic Sliver as I showed everyone a Deep-Sea Kraken. And Kevin's Sakura-Tribe Elder was tiny compared to the second Deep-Sea Kraken I put on to the battlefield. Troy, however, found a Root Greevil—the days of Quest for Ula's Temple were numbered.

With my turn primed I immediately went to start swinging. John used his handy Telekinetic Sliver ability and tapped both of my Deep-Sea Krakens but it didn't stop him from having everything else sent his way. Troy jumped in and bounced Wrexial and John took a paltry 13 damage. I recast Wrexial at the end of my turn.

John added both a Darkheart Sliver and second Muscle Sliver but refrained from attacking to have tappers ready to crunch down my giants-at-sea. I took the opportunity to add a second Inkwell Leviathan.

Kevin also had an end-of-turn play of pitching Big Game Hunter through Tortured Existence to get back the Tribe Elder. The Hunter jumped onto the battlefield thanks to madness and put Wrexial down for the count. Kevin's actual turn was much less exciting since he couldn't play Fleshbag Marauder (as it would have killed Troy's Greevil) so instead he played Buried Alive to plop Sylvok Replica, Butcher of Malakir, and another Big Game Hunter in the graveyard.

Troy held the Greevil to pop on demand. On my turn John tapped both of my unblockables and the fully leveled Coralhelm. While I had drawn Stormtide Leviathan my guess was that there was no way I'd actually be able to get it on to the battlefield. I left my Mulldrifter home and sent in my pair of Inkwells to drop John to just 1 life. And, as expected, Troy popped the Greevil to wipe the Ula's Temple away before I could use it again.

John drew his card for the turn and started counting the power of his creatures: 18. His play was Shifting Sliver, which let him swing in at me for exactly 18 life. That's one way to do it.

Kevin wasted no time moving on to resisting the well-grown pile of Slivers by casting Fleshbag Marauder twice (John choosing to lose a Muscle Sliver and Telekinetic Sliver). Troy had a Utopia Tree and Exploration just a little too late to get the most from them.

John replaced his lost Muscle with a new Sinew Sliver before he hit Kevin for 11. Kevin just used Tortured Existence to get back Fleshbag Marauder, using Squee, Goblin Nabob to continuously recycle. This let Kevin have the double Fleshbag play again (John made a token to sac, followed by the other Muscle Sliver). Troy tried to set up some plays with a Congregation at Dawn.

But the game was firmly under the control of John who added a Gemhide Sliver but attacked Kevin for only 3. Kevin wanted to find a way to get ahead of the advancing Slivers so he went for the Butcher of Malakir and cast it. Troy decided to find some land with Primal Growth but the writing was on the wall at the point when John made two Sliver tokens thanks to the mana ability from Gemhide.

With his army readied John pummeled Kevin for 17 damage, one more than Kevin's 16.

Troy, with only a few lands out, drew for his turn and said, "You win!" to John. The Slivers had marched to victory.

    Keep Your Guard Up

While Vanguard won't light up everyone's engine it is something to consider when you're looking at the far-too-numerous ways to play Magic with friends. I'm looking forward to the next chance I have to try out my new cards; it's not everyday I get to build a deck like I do for EDH but not have to worry about only one copy of things.

That said I also can't wait to pile the rules into the sky with PlanechaseVanguardArchenemy where the villain avatar is the namesake archenemy and a planar battle ensues with the team of heroes assembled to handle it. Potentially confusing as all get out? You bet. Dripping with juicy flavor? One hundred times over.

So tell what you would do with any, or every, avatar! If you've tried your hand at Vanguard before, what did you think of it? Any awesome ideas to share? Let me know or, even better, share it on the forums!

See you next week when we get crafty with Karn!

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