The Age-Old Debate

Posted in Top Decks on December 31, 2009

By Mike Flores

I might have picked this one even if Kibler HADN'T followed up by actually winning the next Pro Tour with a Baneslayer Angel deck .... It is funny reading these things with a few months of history under our belts. I am not knocking Broodmate Dragon when I say this (and I was an early adopter and longtime fan of that six), but is this even a debate anymore? The world—led perhaps by the mysterious "Doom Blade Guy"—all counted Baneslayer out before she even got a chance to spread those wings, and now we see her being touted as the best large creature of all time. Debate over and done? Never, we hope! :)

This article originally ran on August 6, 2009.

Paper versus plastic.

Pepsi versus Coke.

Fab Four versus Stones.

There are as many knock-down, drag-out fights with as many iron-hard adherents as there are sides to pick on ... well ... any positions to take, on any topics. But more than shopping bags, soft drinks, or musical tastes, there are none so old—nor as heated—as the gauntlet lines drawn on either side of that fundamental war as old and ornery as Magic 2010 itself:

... Broodmate Dragon or Baneslayer Angel in Five-Color Control?

The combatants:

Broodmate Dragon has a bit more pedigree due to having been around since States 2008, whereas Baneslayer Angel is quite fresh, vying for the title of M10's rookie of the year. Broodmate Dragon, then, has had the chance to participate in more high finishing Constructed decks; this seems to be the most important for the 2009 Championship season (so far):

Shuhei Nakamura's Five-Color Control

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The reigning Player of the Year and now Japan National Champion put some kind of a stamp on this year's Championship season, his winning deck influencing players far and wide, at every level. We can see the influence of this deck on, say, Charles Gindy's U.S. National Championship–winning follow-up (which was perhaps four cards different in the main), and can cheer that onetime Storyteller Evan Erwin was able to grind into that National Championship with Shuhei's same 75. The Nakamura camp is 100% Broodmate Dragon.

But can we say that the jury is in, just because of Shuhei's win and the subsequent Broodmate finishes?

Check out Brian Kibler's take on Five-Color Control:

Brian Kibler's Five-Color Control

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Of all people to turn down a Dragon, Kibler—long heralded as the DragonMaster for his first Pro Tour Top 8 sporting the ravaging Rith, the Awakener—chose to go with Baneslayer Angels over the more established Dragon set. While Brian did not follow up his Pro Tour–Honolulu Top 8 with another historic finish at Nationals, he did open up the tournament with a flawless 4-0 Constructed salvo behind this Baneslayer Angel build.

According to Brian, and especially going into U.S. Nationals, Baneslayer Angel had more potential "to win games that were otherwise unwinnable" than did Broodmate Dragon. Even in the situation where one of Brian's opponents immediately had a removal spell—if that spell were Path to Exile—it could ramp him directly to Cruel Ultimatum mana (from five to seven provided Brian had a land in hand). And the games where the opponent did not have the removal spell? Kibler considered it not up for debate whatsoever. Baneslayer Angel allowed him to shrug off Oversoul of Dusk (typically a hard critter—or god—to beat for anyone save Reveillark, once resolved) to Anathemancer (historically poison for Five-Color Control decks). And heads-up, unopposed? Angel obviously has the edge over Broodmate Dragon there.

    Aside #1: Pilferers, Plunderers, Pirates ... and Pickpockets

"You've got to pick a pocket or two."

One of the strategic principles that Kibler's statement pulls us back to is this notion of stealing games that don't belong to us; surely the idea of grabbing additional share—rather than just upholding the real estate that we are theoretically entitled to—is a concept that many of us will be willing to warp our deck designs to accomplish.

I can remember back ten years or so to Urza Block Constructed and playing main-deck Hush and Lull in my StOmPy (Mono-Green Aggro) deck. Two of the top decks at the time were Sneak Attack and Replenish. Lull—a cycling Fog variant—allowed the StOmPy deck to steal games from Sneak Attack when the opponent would commit tons of resources to setting up one or two brutal attacks; by cancelling damage when the opponent thought there would be a tremendous return for cards spent (that is, usually the win), the simpler StOmPy could outlast the Attack; Lull could also help to win combats despite an opposing StOmPy's Might of Oaks or similar pump spell. Hush—a cycling Tempest of Light—could cancel out the tremendous card advantage of the Replenish deck's position on the board.

In theory these cards did not disrupt the StOmPy deck's core functionality because they could cycle away into creatures, Might of Oaks, the archetype-defining Rancor, whatever. Much of the value of these cards sat with their surprise value. The Sneak Attack player would not throw away all thosecards out of fear that they would end up dealing no damage ... instead, he or she would try to drag out cards and damage without remaining open to a bad Fog; the Replenish player might think twice about pouring all those enchantments into the graveyard for a single-Replenish payoff when all those cards could go right back into the graveyard the next turn.

Kibler's Baneslayer Angels lack the surprise of the cycling green spells from ten years ago, but they demand a great deal of respect from the player behavior standpoint. Even if the opponent can see the Baneslayer Angel coming, it might take many cards to kill it, especially for red decks, or anyone whose hand is not then and there sporting black or white removal. The alternative—unsurprisingly—might be pockets full of resources well beyond the initial investment the Baneslayer Angel might have demanded upon first appearance.

End aside.

But let's go back to the question of removal, and how much removal it takes to deal with one of these massive creatures.

As I often do in situations like this (or, say, what Hogwarts house I should be in; who's hotter, Madonna or Gwen Stefani; or what action movie I should bring to movie club) I put it out to my loyal and epic Twitter contact list. The number of responses I got when asking this community's opinions on Baneslayer Angel vs. Broodmate Dragon was simply flattering.

Interestingly, the group came out hugely in favor of Broodmate Dragon (I thought they might ... but not in these proportions). In fact, the group voted well over 3:1 in favor of Broodmate Dragon!

The general sentiment was that Broodmate Dragon is more resistant to removal, specifically single removal spells. After all, "everyone" is playing Doom Blade, Deathmark is one of the most common and inexpensive sideboard cards, and while protection from Demons and Dragons smells awfully like protection from black and red, the two (four?) aren't identical.

Specifically, tapping out to block with Baneslayer Angel was called into question. Removal when you needed a blocker was a sure sign of vulnerability. Additionally, three colors or no, Broodmate Dragon seemed like an easier cast for some—though, in truth, neither card is particularly difficult for a Five-Color Control deck packing Reflecting Pools, Vivid Lands, and Exotic Orchard to summon.

The dissenters noted that, beyond being clearly superior heads-up, the life gain on Baneslayer Angel could help buffer the effects of a Cruel Ultimatum, and since the Angel is proof from all Demons and Dragons ... that includes Chameleon Colossus as well (a subtle, but not insignificant, advantage against a number of once very popular decks). The majority, beyond their—as a group—primary stance regarding point elimination, noted that they would just do what Shuhei Nakamura says to do ... And from last year's adopted Demigods of Revenge to this year's Cruel Ultimatums, it's hard to disagree with the Player of the Year.

Though I was an early adopter of Broodmate Dragons (I played them in my Jund Mana Ramp deck at the first available tournament—States 2008), I quite like the Baneslayer Angels, myself (perhaps because I usually dissent?). To my mind, Baneslayer Angel—beyond having so many abilities (everything, including the kitchen sink, outdoing Kitchen Finks, save vigilance)—has an unwritten special ability relative to other closers: It only costs five mana instead of six. This is quite significant in terms of "real world" mana.

We have sometimes hinted at the significance of small mana steps when actually under pressure. Think about all the times in Limited you kept two, got stuck on two, and lost with a hand full of three-mana spells. The jump from five to six is even more challenging than two to three; while both have a difference of only one land-drop, the gulf to six mana feels five lands deep. This is especially true for a strategy with so many Vivid lands. You might actually have the sixth land drop, but if your land enters the battlefield tapped, you won't be able to enjoy it. Your six-mana spells will still be stuck in hand while you take a pounding.

On top of that, Baneslayer Angel—to my mind at least—is not quite so delicate a flower as some of her critics seem to believe. Her bountiful backside complicates the durability argument depending on who is on the other side of the table. For example, she is quite unattractive a target for Bituminous Blast players (which is ironic, in a sense). While she may be more vulnerable to Terminate and Doom Blade, Baneslayer Angel has a comparative edge in durability, at least in these cases. Her five-toughness rear end not only shrugs off Bituminous Blast, but many similar 4-damage spells; even if Broodmate Dragon doesn't go down to just one removal spell, two Flame Javelins can take it out, clearing the path for whatever mischief is already afoot on the battlefield.

    Aside #2: Red Deck Caucus

This is one of my favorite Pro Tour anecdotes, so please forgive me if you've heard or read it before.

A few years ago at Pro Tour–Charleston, my friend Patrick Sullivan and I were having a heated debate over the last slot in the Budget Boros deck that we both liked to play on Magic Online. Patrick played with another set of small white creatures (I think he was running Leonin Skyhunter), whereas I liked to play with another burn spell (I had either Seal of Fire or Volcanic Hammer where psulli had his 2/2s).

We decided—and I think you will agree this is a good idea—to ask Tsuyoshi Fujita (master of all things red) what the right slot was.

Tsuyoshi kind of squinted his eyes and plunged inward, deep in thought. He stroked an imaginary beard, kind of manifesting the iconic archetype of the Eastern sage. You could almost hear the "pop" as the light bulb appeared over the future Hall of Famer's head and he reached his fiery conclusion:

"Depends on the metagame."

End aside.

Kibler himself recently speculated that Broodmate Dragon may now be the clear better choice simply because of a shift in the metagame. He did not necessarily prepare for the Conley Woods Mannequin deck (not a known quantity pre-Nationals), but as Jund Mannequin cements itself as a factor in this metagame—bringing with it a rise in Shriekmaws—Baneslayer Angel gets progressively less attractive.

A fair number of the Twitter respondants copped out, saying they would play "both" either as a solution to Thought Hemorrhage, or Broodmate Dragons main (because they are better) and Baneslayer Angels in the side (for the mirror).

One clever nonconformist (we'll call him Jonny, in light of the theme week) dodged entirely. While a Dragon (and potentially meat at the end of Baneslayer Angel's sword), he advocated Bogardan Hellkite. The Hellkite is only trumped if the opponent can get Baneslayer Angel in play, and with the Hellkite, a Five-Color Control player can hang back, and play all-instants, you know, no better than Fae.

The truth is, this debate will continue to rage, at least in part as a subset of a related debate: is Baneslayer Angel far and away too good, or overrated? Of course there are some decks where Broodmate Dragon is clearly the better choice; for example, Makeshift Mannequin decks. Broodmate Dragon has an enters-the-battlefield ability that rewards Makeshift Mannequin (my play group compares it to a cousin of Enlisted Wurm that always cascades into an Air Elemental).

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who will point to the impressive Baneslayer Angel as an example of power creep. But as great as Baneslayer Angel is ... is she only the third best white five-drop flyer in Standard?

Does Baneslayer Angel top this tournament flagship?

How about this one?

You might not agree that the new girl takes a back seat to both of these fives, but it is a topic at least up for debate. If Baneslayer Angel had really and conclusively creeped past both of them (with both being very respectable five-drops), then that wouldn't be the case.

So how much of a cop-out is playing both?

One of the first ideas I had was simply to run lots (even four) of each, in much the same way that we did with Critical Mass, Jushi Blue, and URzaTron (there wasn't much the opponent could do more impressive than our tapping out for one of our many Keigas or Melokus). The problem is that, today, if you tap out for a five or six, you are liable to get destroyed, especially if you are on the draw with a slow control deck. Identity Crisis and Cruel Ultimatum are merciless like that. With big sorceries this big, an eight-pack of savage finishers is probably unrealistic (not to mention the mana implications ... and in a deck sporting Cryptic Command? You'd need like twelve Vivid lands, Reflecting Pools, and ... oh, never mind).

So where does this leave us?

Fighting still, I think, duking it out on battle lines defined by fear versus possibility, or, put another way ... depends on the metagame!

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