Big, Little, Bleed, and Extort

Posted in Top Decks on March 28, 2013

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."

When Mark Rosewater first introduced the Orzhov some seven years ago, he described what R&D called a "bleeder" deck—one exemplified by cards like Pillory of the Sleepless or One Thousand Lashes... cards that could neutralize the opponent while generating an incremental advantage. This kind of a description of the Orzhov—what the Orzhov might be before we ever drew cardboard off our libraries—might have been more along the lines of The Rock.

Was this good?

Would it be good?

Magic at the time was increasingly about big, sometimes "over the top" offenses like Keiga, the Tide Star; Magnivore; or Godo, Bandit Warlord. Standard was tied together by a thick paste of Gifts Ungiven on one end and Umezawa's Jitte on the other (both the most powerful tool of the beatdown and the greatest tool against the beatdown). How good would a point here or a point there be? One extra card, 1 life point, a tiny extra edge?

It turns out...

...that packing a little extra value onto a card—into the intrinsic strategy of a color combination—did not necessarily have to be "little." Consider one of the iconic cards of the Orzhov Syndicate:

Angel of Despair

Angel of Despair has proven a smashing—rather a permanent-smashing—card over the years, a vital threat that contributed to a number of important strategies, from BGW mana denial to Hypergenesis, perhaps most famously to Standard Solar Flare.

Luis Scott-Vargas's Solar Flare

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Solar Flare, as you can see, was a deck that—although blue as well as black and white—really embraced the extra value system of the Orzhov Syndicate. Every Court Hussar, every Remand, pilfered, plucked, or put away that extra card; a spiritually gray binder grinder bathed in blue.

So, Orzhov could go quite big.

But in its first run, it was more about going little.

Possibly the most "Orzhov" white-black deck ever was the influential Ghost Dad.

Ghost Dad was many things: initially exciting, later overrated, very much talked-about in its day... even responsible for inspiring one of the greatest theory articles of all time. But as I said, more than any one of those things, it was perhaps the most "Orzhov" Orzhov deck. Ghost Dad really was a bleeder, an incremental advantage machine that wanted to kill the opponent a tiny slice at a time, a card here, a point there... even gaining a point or three for extra value while hiding behind a 1/3.

Ghost Dad was also a study in synergy.

Most other successful Orzhov weenie decks were about individual card impact (Hand in Hand) or explosive power (Ghost Husk), but Ghost Dad wanted to grant the opponent's death via a thousand cuts... often literally (well, twenty cuts).

Benjamin Goodman's Ghost Dad

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The original idea behind Ghost Dad was that Ben Goodman and team wanted to play eight Shoals, both Shining Shoal and Sickening Shoal. Shoals were powerful but required a player to discard a card much of the time. You can't do that too many times before the opponent bowls you over. That said, Shoals were also Arcane... which allowed them an interesting avenue for card advantage via a seldom-seen Spirit.

Enter Tallowisp.


Tallowisp offered an engine that allowed Ghost Dad to recoup card economy on a Shoal and just set up legitimate card advantage—and even tutoring—given a particular structure in deck design.

So beyond super stock cards like Dark Confidant (how could you play your Orzhov incremental card advantage deck without that grindiest little two-drop?) the deck was built on Spirits and Arcane for Tallowisp, and of course Tallowisp's target enchantments (which in many cases were themselves also grindy little sources of incremental cards or damage).

So instead of Mortify (which every other Orzhov deck played), you had Pillory of the Sleepless as the three-mana creature-stopper. Left alone, this kill spell would actually kill the opponent, given twenty turns!

Indomitable Will was a bullet combat trick (although a creature enchantment, you could play it as an instant) and Strands of Undeath allowed you to tutor up a discard spell! Card advantage.

But the grindiest of the grinding Ghost Dad cards was the Ghost Dad himself: Ghost Council of Orzhova.

Ghost Council of Orzhova

Here is a card that defies control removal spells with great flexibility and could also challenge unanimous "best creature in Standard" Loxodon Hierarch on the field of head-to-head combat. Ghost Council of Orzhova, like so many cards in Ghost Dad, was a Spirit, promoting the synergy with Tallowisp while providing tremendous individual card efficiency.

Now, speaking of individual card efficiency as a theme, Orzhov had a deck for that, too:

Olivier Ruel's Hand in Hand

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Olivier Ruel built up his Hall of Fame career with a Top 8 finish at the first Pro Tour Honolulu with this WB beatdown deck. It may be most famous for being on the wrong side of the $16,000 Lightning Helix (probably the most famous topdeck in the history of Magic):


Ruel's deck had the same Dark Confidants and Ghost Councils as Ghost Dad but drew its Orzhov grinding not from Tallowisp synergy, but rather packing extra value in many different individual cards. Ravenous Rats and Shrieking Grotesque offered self-contained two-for-ones, and Plagued Rusalka allowed Ruel to gain even more value out of their otherwise pathetic X/1 bodies by trading them, oftentimes, with the opponent's creatures.

You might not be able to easily see the advantage generated by Hand of Cruelty or Paladin en-Vec, but these creatures—one or the other—could usually get past the opponent's defenses to set up a ninjutsu strike by Okiba-Gang Shinobi (more value). Of course, in a format relatively thin for combo decks, Paladin en-Vec + Umezawa's Jitte might have been the best "combo" in the format... with both protection from black and protection from red, the spot removal that could shut down a Paladin en-Vec was few and far between, but the chaos the little lawman could create with Jitte was immediate and obvious.

Orzhov Pontiff
Phyrexian Arena
Seize the Soul
Terashi's Grasp

Even the sideboard cards in Ruel's WB deck were chosen to generate incremental advantages, one after another—a little more creature kill, a little more damage, a card or three, some life points. Death by a thousand tiny edges.

The last and most powerful of the first generation of Orzhov's iconic beatdown decks was Ghost Husk:

Osyp Lebedowicz's Ghost Husk

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Ghost Husk was initially met with skepticism and incredulity, especially from pro players. It seemed like a gimmick. Many conservative players were more attracted to the simple, relatively no-frills, individual card efficiency of a straight WB a la Oliver Ruel.

Ghost Husk... Ghost Husk was a Johnny deck.

So how did this deck work?

Nantuko Husk
Promise of Bunrei

Nantuko Husk and Promise of Bunrei were the unique elements of this style of WB beatdown. You could sacrifice a creature to set up Promise of Bunrei... which would give you four more creatures to sacrifice. Ergo, Nantuko Husk could strike for an additional 8–10 damage out of nowhere, or at the very least bowl over almost any creature standing in its way.

Promise of Bunrei could also give the deck some resistance to Wrath of God or other creature elimination.

Many important theorists consider Ghost Husk the true monster of the era. It was explosive and powerful, the Angel of Despair to the rest of the Orzhov weenie family's Ravenous Rats. It was so good, so powerful, that it didn't even have to play Umezawa's Jitte.

How did Ghost Husk get away with this supreme act of arrogant omission?

Nantuko Husk could give this combat-oriented style of deck an easy way around Umezawa's Jitte; the Husk player could block and sacrifice the blocking creature prior to damage. Because the opponent never got to damage, he or she would never get to place a counter on Umezawa's Jitte.

So while the deck lacked Jitte's offensive power, Ghost Husk could neutralize it in the hands of the opponent; and of course, the deck had a level of offensive power with the Husk/Promise combo that few other decks could match in the red zone.

What might not be immediately obvious is that Ghost Husk was not an Orzhov-themed bleeder deck, Dark Confidant and Ghost Council of Orzhova notwithstanding (and the latter only a three-of)... those were just great cards in-color, regardless of theme. Ghost Husk was a deck that knew what it wanted. It started with a 2/2 on turn one! Its strategy, its offense, existed regardless of what the opponent wanted it do... it just so happened it could execute despite what the opponent wanted to do.

What about Orzhov, not in the context of Ravnica Block, but Return to Ravnica Block?

At the time of this writing, we haven't seen a dedicated Orzhov deck—that is, straight WB—as a major and unique contributor to Standard or other relevant formats. But that doesn't mean there aren't powerhouse tools afforded by the syndicate. Cards like...

Cartel Aristocrat

As seen in both The Aristocrats and Human Reanimator, Cartel Aristocrat has provided the ability to sacrifice your own creatures... with and without extra value attached. In The Aristocrats, Cartel Aristocrat can sacrifice Doomed Traveler to set up an extra (flying) 1/1 body or to enable the morbid on Skirsdag High Priest. In Human Reanimator, it helps set up either infinite life with Huntmaster of the Fells or infinite mana with Burning Tree Emissary by sacrificing a Fiend Hunter covering your own Angel of Glory's Rise (which will of course bring back the aforementioned Fiend Hunter once it returns to the battlefield)... and will do so again and again.

Orzhov Charm


As seen in The Aristocrats, Orzhov Charm can do everything from bringing back a Champion of the Parish to getting you a re-buy on the mighty Zealous Conscripts to giving you a way to kill a pesky Boros Reckoner. At least two of these abilities are non-trivial in their power level. One Zealous Conscripts will often win the game... but two? Boros Reckoner is multicolored and therefore immune to Ultimate Price, and offing it with a Searing Spear is... expensive. A two-mana solution to the best three-drop in recent memory is nothing to shake a stick at... especially given its other abilities.

Vizkopa Guildmage

As seen in Modern lifegain decks, Vizkopa Guildmage allows a player going long to turn a Martyr of Sands into a machine gun.

Gift of Orzhova

As seen in Bant Hexproof, Gift of Orzhova is the latest in a long line of Ethereal Armors, Rancors, and Spectral Flights that make Invisible Stalker and Geist of Saint Traft that much more lethal. Invisible Stalker is hard enough to handle by its lonesome... but give it some extra toughness and a set of wings? Geist of Saint Traft's one nod to fair play is that you can block and kill it with almost anything. You might take some damage in the meantime, but the 2/2 Geist itself is not so hard to contain... unless it becomes next to impossible to block, that is!

Obzedat, Ghost Council

As seen everywhere from The Aristocrats to Junk Rites to Esper Control, Obzedat, Ghost Council is simply one of the most powerful and effective large creatures in the Standard format. A 5/5 creature for five mana is already near the appropriate cost-to-power level for competitive play, but Obzedat has multiple forms of upside. Built for a long game, Obzedat will expect to gain more life than the average Thragtusk... and will do so while chunking away at the opponent's life total. How positively Orzhov! And because it can disappear during the opponent's turn, Obzedat, Ghost Council is a powerful threat against control. Good luck killing it with a Supreme Verdict!

And then we have the extort cards...


Blind Obedience and Crypt Ghast have seen some play in reasonable-to-good Constructed decks... Crypt Ghast in particular ensures you have enough mana to keep your extort engine moving. From my perspective, extort is a beautiful mechanic. It isn't just iconically Orzhov (which it most definitely is), it rewards careful players who are good at math and racing, and helps flatten out games for players who are mana flooded. Ever have two extort permanents out and running simultaneously? It can feel quite powerful as long as your opponent isn't playing "over the top" Magic.

I am just surprised Syndic of Tithes hasn't made any kind of splash yet. Perfect racer and great opportunity to give a beatdown deck reach when drawing a near-dead "bear" late in a game.

Only time will tell if this generation of Orzhov cards come together to make a straight WB deck that we will be talking about six or seven years from now. But even if they don't, we will certainly see cards like these help grind out successes for a variety of multicolor strategies.

Firestarter: What is your favorite historical Orzhov card? Where do you see extort contributing in future?

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