Posted in Top Decks on July 11, 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."

Today I am going to talk about commitment.

There are different philosophies in deck building, of course. Some are super straightforward: Playing "the absolute best cards, or the best cards in your chosen color(s), regardless of synergy" is one philosophy, and has been a successful one. Picking nine or ten cards you like and playing four copies of all of those along with twenty to twenty-four lands is another; it has also been successful, especially in beatdown decks or other proactive strategies (although you will often be accused of playing a little-kid deck). These sorts of philosophies can rack up just as many big wins as seemingly more complicated ones... but they are not necessarily the most fun or mentally engaging.

Part of what makes Magic so addictive is the deck building element of synergy, and the inter-card dependencies that are implicit to synergy. I can still remember the moment, nearly twenty years ago, when it not only dawned on me that I should play my Revised-era Kird Ape in a deck with Forests, but that there was such a thing as Taiga, and that all of these cards could link hairy arms and serve me as a sum greater than its individual parts (which was not a great leap for a 1/1 Kird Ape).

Decks relying on inter-card synergies require a bit more commitment to deck building than those with cards that all stand on their own. I am not talking about putting together a Deceiver Exarch and a Splinter Twin. Not a combo.

I am talking about commitment.

Commitment to the gang.

Like, check out this gang:

Two of those cards were banned in multiple formats. All three of those cards, separately, at one time or another in a highly competitive game of Magic: The Gathering, would signal the death knell.

Yet not one of them is particularly engaging on its own.

Can you imagine anyone quaking in his or her boots against Forest, Forest, Arcbound Ravager?

While they can seem combo-riffic in certain spots (you can sacrifice a bunch of artifacts to Arcbound Ravager with Disciple of the Vault on the battlefield to win the game quickly), for the most part each of these three is a singular threat that happens to get scary when played in a particular context, and even more so all together.

The difference between a couple of aces like Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Ravager and otherwise awkward combo pieces like Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin is all the cards around them. With the latter two, you want every Preordain you can get your hands on to lace together the two-awkward-card win; with the former it is all about everything else—every Vault of Whispers, every Ancient Den, is a potential weapon as well as asset. If you pull these cards into a regular world of all basic lands with few artifacts and artifact creatures... none of them is looking very dangerous at all. You have to commit loads and loads of cards elsewhere to making these few look particularly good. In return, they look very good indeed.

Because without a big gang of artifacts backing them up?

Myr Enforcer

...these guys are honestly pretty bad.

For an Affinity deck, commitment was almost everything. At the height of the strategy, Disciple of the Vault and Thoughtcast might have been the only colored cards you played main deck. Shrapnel Blast, a sideboard card. Electrostatic Bolt, a metagame choice. Some Affinity decks committed to all Tree of Tales in their sideboards—artifact lands above and beyond the full set they ran main—to demi-transform into Oxidize and Viridian Shaman terrors in the mirror. The other fifty-two? Artifacts and artifact lands. Because absent those artifact lands? Thoughtcast was the world's worst Divination.

I would like to move this discussion to a newer set of cards that perhaps beg some commitment and entertain a mite of discussion as to how Spikes like ourselves might approach them:

Admit it.

You've thought about it.

As far as finding a single card to spend four mana on, you can probably—from a single-card efficiency standpoint—name a stack of 'em that outstrip Bogbrew Witch. Only, that ignores your potential commitment to the Bogbrew Witch; you see, Bogbrew Witch, at least the properly committed Bogbrew Witch, never comes alone. She always, Always, ALWAYS has friends... so you can't really talk about her in isolation.

Goblin Ringleader

What would Goblin Ringleader be without thirty or so of his best friends? You can get a 2/2 haste for less; heck, you can get a 2/2 haste for less in Magic 2014. The difference, of course, is that as good as they are in a gang, many of those Goblins are great by themselves.

Speaking of which...

Festering Newt

Of the three cards making up the M14 Bogbrew Witch engine, Festering Newt, the cheapest, is the best of the group by itself. A 1/1 creature for one mana is not generally something to write home about, but this one has multiple special abilities at its command above and beyond its Bogbrew Witch synergies; Festering Newt is in fact comparable to (and probably just much better than) predecessor Festering Goblin.

Festering Goblin did not exactly set the world on fire as a tournament staple, but it was a sideboard consideration of no less than two-time Grand Prix Champion (and Pro Tour Champion, and Masters Champion) Dr. Michael Pustilnik. Festering Newt (like Festering Goblin before it) can make for a great sideboard card against rush decks. In a best-case scenario it can trade with two opposing creatures, and at the very least it should take down a 2/2 on defense for just one mana.

Festering Newt might not scream "POWER" to you, but there are certainly decks that can benefit from a fast way to contain opposing weenies, especially with an extra opportunity for card advantage.

Bubbling Cauldron

Bubbling Cauldron is a tougher sell on its own. In the abstract there are at least three strikes against:

  1. Mana activation cost—If this card had a poly effect for it might actually end up bonkers; but as a mono effect that costs an actual mana, its efficacy is eyebrow-raising even if you have a Festering Newt on the battlefield.
  2. Does absolutely nothing by itself. You need creatures—probably spending cards—in order to gain any value; that value is generally low.
  3. The Festering Newt sacrifice is potentially powerful, but limited; you are realistically likely to hit the four-and-four four total times in a game, under the best Bogbrew Witch conditions. This prevents Bubbling Cauldron from acting as a long-term grinder.

All of that presupposes that Bubbling Cauldron cost you a card. If it were totally free (i.e., pumped out of a Bogbrew Witch), that might be another story.


Bogbrew Witch

Ah, this engine's little Goblin Ringleader!

It's Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero!

There are a couple of eyebrow-raising elements on Bogbrew Witch. The first is the cost—as Spikes we must evaluate cards that cost four or more mana by their ability to win the game. Does this win the game all by itself?

Honestly... it might. Four Festering Newts and a Bubbling Cauldron will deal 16 (and gain 16) without any substantial help. If anything, it is opposing creatures that will need the help.

That said, a 1/3 creature for four mana is not exactly inspiring in the age of Ghor-Clan Rampager, Hellrider, or Restoration Angel... but it is probably big enough to contain some smaller creatures. Tapping out for Bogbrew Witch does not necessarily prove lethal for you, especially if you've slowed the opponent's offense down a bit—perhaps via your early Festering Newts.

Ghor-Clan Rampager
Restoration Angel

As you probably ran through the idea of searching up and sacrificing Festering Newts yourself the first time you saw these spells previewed, I'll just jump back to today's topic of commitment.

What are we committing to?

Unlike a deck like Affinity that bursts to its sixtieth sliver of cardboard with artifacts and artifact lands; or a deck like Goblins that wants a critical mass of Goblins for its tribal synergies; Festering Newt, Bubbling Cauldron, and Bogbrew Witch are primarily committed only to each other. More creatures for Bubbling Cauldron might be nice, but they are not inherently necessary to the trio.

Do you need to play all twelve?

I don't think so.

Certainly you want four copies of Festering Newt. Festering Newt is cheap; you can play it on turn one and sneak a couple of points in before the opponent can react. Most importantly for our engine, you need every Festering Newt in order to get the most out of your Cauldrons and Witches.

How about four Bubbling Cauldrons?

This is an area where I think we least want four copies. I would probably be okay with just one copy of Bubbling Cauldron, but if we really want to commit to this strategy, we probably want to play two. If nothing, else the second copy gives you another card to search up after your fourth or fifth Witch activation, and it does have some game text even when you run out of Newts.

Finally Bogbrew Witch: Four... or fewer?

There is an interesting tension here; if you really want to be playing this combination of cards, the assumption is you want to hit your Bogbrew Witch on turn four (or whenever is most quickly reasonable). However, I don't get the sense that you want to have more than one in play. Two Bogbrew Witches, for instance, are going to exhaust your entire search reservoir in maybe three turns, depending on what you drew, and draw.

The other question you probably want to ask is what situation(s) you would ever want to set this up; yes, over the course of, say, eight turns, you might actually kill your opponent with a combination of 1/x swings and dying Newts, but the setup itself is not unconditionally powerful. You wouldn't want it against a deck like Jund, for instance; and it is badly outclassed by Junk Reanimator in terms of power level. When is a persistent source of card advantage useful? How about cheap shots at 1/1 and x/2 creatures, if not relatively cheap access to -4/-4 effects?

From a commitment standpoint, you should be willing to play:

...all of which can potentially live in an amenable sideboard.

You've probably already guessed that this article is not—at least not wholly—about getting Festering Newts into play. I don't particularly expect to see these cards tearing up the various summer Standard series, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see the horrified look on the face of a player being outmaneuvered by Bubbling Cauldron on camera.

I nevertheless feel that this three-card sequence is one of the more interesting Easter Eggs embedded in Magic 2014, and although many Spikes will approach the trio incredulous... stranger cards have proven big tournament winners.

I wanted to do a broad-idea article about fitting in—and implicitly taking out—cards, with the idea that some cards only work, or provide particular value when you commit to some others. Nissa Revane is a good example. You'll not likely see a deck playing any number of Nissa Revane without three or four Nissa's Chosen. Playing any number of Nissa Revane is a five to eight card commitment, no negotiations.

Less obvious cards that similarly demand commitment are Farseek, Marsh Flats, and Terramorphic Expanse. It might not seem obvious at the onset—or at all—until the first time you go to search... and come up empty.

I guess the lesson here is to recognize that certain cards bring with them certain dependencies, and to make sure that, as you build with these cards, you commit appropriately to those dependencies as well as the sexy front-row spells.

And as for fitting in versus popping out... you've probably noticed by now that this column is a bit different than most editions of Top Decks (or Swimming With Sharks) that have run for most of the past couple of years. There are going to be some changes around this column, starting with its disappearing entirely.

Disappearing entirely!

Some commitment, I know.

I picked up Swimming With Sharks eight years ago, which I guess leaves design boss Mark Rosewater and Swimming With Sharks's previous columnist Brian David-Marshall as the only two more prolific writers than myself.

New boss in town Trick Jarrett wants me to concentrate on more "big idea" columns instead of slight shifts in the metagame on a week-to-week basis. We're going to tackle some of Magic's biggest questions, like sideboarding, the relationships between different kinds of counting and advantages, and advanced deck-building techniques, albeit with a bit less frequency.

Don't worry... they're still going to give me a card preview or three when sets come out!

I told Trick that I don't know if I can quite hit "Who's the Beatdown?" twelve times per year.

... but damn if we aren't going to make the commitment to try.

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