The Big Guys

Posted in Top Decks on May 12, 2011

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

What do we love about big guys?


Everyone loves big spells, and big guys.

That is, everyone at least starts out liking big, gigantic, guys. I can remember my very first deck I ever made with my very own cards, back in the summertime of 1994; it involved Llanowar Elves powering out Lord of the Pit. Truth is, I never once attacked anyone with Lord of the Pit in that deck... which I suppose is part of the problem.

I think that, at least at the beginning, it is just that big guys are big. Most of us don't associate size as a universal good... Biggest house on the block? Magic Fateball says "signs point to yes" ... Biggest mailbox? Who gives a fifteenth-pick common? I don't know anyone in this day and age that any miser wants to be the dude with the biggest mobile phone (though when Razors and Blades came out, Dave Williams did once pretend to gobble my little one up with his clamshell proto-smartphone, animatronic jaws-style). And yet, especially when we are young, we marvel at the size and scale of certain fantastic creatures.

Sure, doing things big can be harder (and often more valuable) than doing things on a smaller scale. It is more than twice as hard to paint a good big—really big—picture than the same image at half the size. Simply being tall is highly desirable (all other things held equal) in the game of basketball (and to a lesser extent in the game of life). What makes LeBron James a "statistical outlier" if not his massive, power forward-like frame? There are many guards just as skilled (and one or two even more skilled), but James attaches an offensive point guard's speed and passing to Karl Malone's school-bus-like body... Meeting in the middle, we call him a small forward. And then we have our big guys in Magic.

All other things held equal, yes: it is awesome to have a seven-drop on the board... any seven-drop, almost any, in the abstract. Better—it is almost too obvious to say this out loud—than basically any two-drop (and Magic is a game, largely, of awesome two-drops). But the almost painfully obvious barrier is that one costs two and the other costs seven. What's the problem with seven anyway?

Well... there isn't anything strictly wrong with seven as a number, other than its opportunity cost; and in Simic Sky Swallower we have seen a legitimate seven that did well for itself in more than one format. You have the odd Krosan Tusker that plays bad Fact or Fiction (bad, and uncounterable, and three mana... You know, "bad"), and bad big guy (here meaning "not spectacular"), sure; but for the most part, the upper limit on "regular old" Constructed-quality creature cost seems to be about six mana... you know, the sweet spot for most Dragons (starting with ye olde Two-Headed or Rith, the Awakener varieties), as well as our current Titan cycle.

Just for kicks, let's compare two players, each with five lands in play and one card, a fatty for each. One player has White Praetor Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite in hand, whereas the opposite number has the more conventional Sun Titan. For the time being let's not wonder why we are at this point, but instead admit that we have all been, in some game or another, the one with five lands on the battlefield and a creature we can't cast.

Given the way these things go, either player probably has a sub-50% chance of hitting a sixth land on the next pull, meaning our Sun Titan player has an awesome 6/6 less than half the time, and our Grand Cenobite player, never (at least the next turn).

Let us pretend for a moment a perfect universe where our players each have two lands on top of their decks. Huzzah! Sun Titan! Sun Titan utilizes all six of its controller's mana, and undoubtedly does something awesome.

Got there! And can there be any other reaction for the Grand Cenobite player? Draw a land, plas a land... and do nothing we know of with that six mana.

This perfect-world scenario really brings into relief the problem—problems, really—that big creatures have to overcome to shine in Constructed: 1) opportunity cost, and 2) wasted opportunities.

Imagine we really do live in a bountiful utopia of mana, and that you can be certain to hit a land, just enough land, every turn until, say eight... and that our friendly, always interactive, games go ten plentiful turns. What would that look like from the perspective of mana availability?

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 8 + 8

When you look at it like this, being stuck with a seven when you have nothing but six means a loss of 11.5% of the total mana you might be presented with over an entire game. Put another way, in a head-to-head you might be behind an awesome 6/6 Titan whole waiting for your seven to drop. Or even worse, in a head-to-head on the draw, you might never, ever see daylight if the opponent had a Tectonic Edge, anywhere.

And that is with perfect, utopian mana!

In a real game, your mana development is often 0 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 (or much worse, like 1 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 4) ... Losing the opportunity to use six mana is an even bigger deal. Point being, a big guy has to be awfully good to see play over even slightly cheaper options. That's why, as great as Sun Titan is (and as unstoppable in the mirror), the leading white-blue deck plays 0-1 copies, but can't ever be separated from its Squadron Hawks (less impressive, maybe, but still impressive... and you can cast them each and every game).

Laying out mana in a practical sense gives us all kinds of hints as to why people play certain cards, and even certain colors. Preordain? There was a time that there was a debate over playing this card, remember? ...I know! If nothing else, Preordain can fill mana holes (for example turn one). Blue is great because it has cards like Preordain (that can draw you into your lands), and green is great because it is much, much better at hitting large amounts of mana, quickly.

For example, a draw of Joraga Treespeaker into Lotus Cobra into Verdant Catacombs gives you six mana on turn three, exploding into a Primeval Titan on the third turn. And after that... who's counting?

Long story short, big guys aren't, for the most part, as great as they seem to us when we first encounter the game... but some of them are still pretty great. The rest of this article is about five big guys, and will discuss, respectfully, the possibility of playing some of those big guys in competitive Constructed.

One of these abilities is more important than the other two, and I'm guessing you know which one.

Crovax, Ascendant Hero never needed an army around him to be effective, and I doubt Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite will, either. The most important thing here (for Constructed decks, anyway), is the card's ability to slaughter lots and lots of the opponent's little guys without spending more than the initial seven mana.

A cool idea to do with Elesh Norn is to run it in Legacy Dredge. You can kill all your opponent's little Goblins, simultaneously defend via vigilance, and even build up the size of your Zombie tokens to make for a faster race.

On the Crazy Talk podcast, Patrick Chapin recently commented that Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur is one of the five best creatures you can have on turn one.

There are lots of awesome creatures you can essentially start the game with, but Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur makes for a really compelling option considering how he probably got there.

Underground Sea, Careful Study (discarding Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur); Chrome Mox (imprinting something)... ReanimateJin-Gitaxias, Core Augur.

You are down a card from Careful Study, and down a card from Chrome Mox. Jin-Gitaxias is great here because you can draw right back up and then some.

From the other side of the table, if your opponent doesn't have a Swords to Plowshares on the spot, there goes his or her entire hand... and it's just the first turn! Even if the Swords to Plowsharesis handy, you just refilled your entire seven!

See? One of the five best, ever.

In the same interview, Pat posited a pretty legitimate possibility for decks playing Sword of Feast and Famine...

If you have but five lands on the battlefield, you can tap them all with Sword of Feast and Famine's untap ability on the stack, then tap them all again. Five plus five is ten, and flash lets you cast Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur during combat!

Ten mana is a huge amount, but I would consider playing Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur, paying retail. There are just some decks that can get to ten, and a bullet Jin-Gitaxias, can allow you to play your big guy while the opponent is tapped... and you know what is going to happen next.

Of the five Praetors, I think that Sheoldred, Whispering One is going to be the most likely to hit in Constructed for what it is, at what it costs. Jin-Gitaxias might make a reanimation target, and there are probably Caw-Blade players out there who might try their hands at the combat-step ten. But those are tricky plays, cheating and/or tantamount to cheating.

But Sheoldred? You might just cast it.

Sheoldred costs one more than Visara the Dreadful (and we spent a fair amount of time earlier in this article talking about how steep a slope one mana might mean at the six or seven); but in return you get quite a bit. Firstly, there is the bigger body. If it were just 5/5 to 6/6 Sheoldred probably wouldn't be worth it, but Sheoldred has lots of other abilities, too. In terms of killing creatures, Sheoldred's Cruel Edict-like ability works in respectable parallel to what Visara gave black mages. More than that, an "Edict" can take out creatures like a White Knight, whereas Visara wouldn't be able to target one. And then you have the old "Reya Dawnbringer" ability...

Reya Dawnbringer has had a long and impressive popularity among casual players... People love a Dawnbringer! Reya costs more than Sheoldred, and for the most part, does less.

Players talk all the time about making Mono-Black Control decks. With Sheoldred, Whispering One as a finisher, maybe they'll finally make one worth playing.

Urabrask the Hidden has a lot going for it. All the other Praetors are seven mana—or even ten mana—but Urabrask isn't even pushing up against that six mana reasonable upper limit. It's a mere five!

There are a couple of places you can play Urabrask: You can play it in a red-green deck, Fires of Yavimaya style. You can play Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise, and they will be twice as good on account of working right when they hit the 'field.

Or you can play Urabrask in one of those newfangled Big Red decks with all the artifacts. You know that turn we were talking about earlier, the one where one deck got a Sun Titan and the other one had to sit around on its hands? Turns like that happen in real life, too.

A lot of the time red decks will be attacking, trying to press the attack, and then the mean-spirited white deck will tap for a Baneslayer Angel and that will be all she wrote. Attack or don't attack? If you don't attack, you don't deal any damage. If you do attack... it'll probably be worse.

But when you lead on Urabrask the Hidden? Not only do you get in for 4, but on that big turn? Mama Baneslayer Angel enters the battlefield tapped.

Sigh. "No blocks."

In terms of gauging Praetors for competitive Constructed play, I am least bullish about Vorinclex's chances. What's the problem? It comes back to opportunity cost. Green is the color of having awesome fatties. Eight mana for Vorinclex is a lot to ask when you can just pay six for Primeval Titan.

In terms of Vorinclex's abilities... One is awesome and the other is kind of redundant. How much mana do you need, really? You already (presumably) had eight mana to play your Praetor... What exactly are you going to do with the "Mana Flare" here that you couldn't do with a Titan chaining into a bunch of Eldrazi lands?

I kind of love Vorinclex's other ability, though I have no idea how good it is in the very late turns, practically speaking.

Even if you don't want to talk about Primeval Titan, there are just so many awesome, already playable, big guys in green... Avenger of Zendikar is a mana cheaper, and at least from the purely offensive dimension, higher impact in the short term. And one of the things we didn't touch on over the course of this discussion of super expensive—but admittedly high impact—creatures is Mana Leak. Countermagic is the bane of spending a ton of mana on a threat. You know what fatty ignores one of those? Gaea's Revenge.

Long story short, I think that Jin-Gitaxias will be clever, unexpected, and dominating; Sheoldred might resurrect MBC for the first time since Visara was legal; and Urabrask is reasonably costed enough to be played in more than one strat... But Vorinclex? I'd be surprised to see this one in Standard, given the intra-color competition.

Big guys can be great; and some of the Praetors might themselves be very good, not just in Commander, but for consideration in Block, Standard, and so forth. I for one welcome our new Phyrexian overlords.

Rack up your Praetors at one of this weekend's New Phyrexia Launch Parties. For more information on those, click on the banner below, or use the Launch Party Finder to your right.

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