Evaluating Allies

Posted in Top Decks on November 5, 2009

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."

The Reverend Toby Wachter once wrote this great article about moving through the stages of grief—from denial to acceptance—in the context of losing to a Battle of Wits deck; it basically began with a "you've got to be kidding me" to "looks like ya got me," and was full of fun at the same time as being informative (Toby was just about the first person to really try Battle of Wits in competitive Magic).

As someone who has lost to an Allies deck in Constructed, I recently felt a resonance with Toby's original article; today we might raise an eyebrow at a Battle of Wits deck, but we know better than to think it completely beyond Constructed viability. Jon Finkel has aced Invitational formats with Battle, and Billy Jensen made Top 8 of a Grand Prix with the strategy...But what about Allies?

When I lost, my opponent laid out a trio of Ondu Clerics and was gaining a minor amount of life until he cast a Bala Ged Thief. I didn't lose the game for many more turns, but I think that it was the second activation of the Bala Ged Thief that I moved all the way to acceptance. My deck was poor in the short-term creature elimination department, and I realized that even if I got to the point that I would have the mana to cast my spells...I wouldn't have the spells to cast any longer and would be in topdeck mode; meanwhile the Allies opponent was whittling away with his Clerics, a couple of points at a time, and I knew I wasn't going to be interacting back in any meaningful way for some turns. Yep, I thought. Gonna lose to these. The Thief doesn't look like much, but completely unopposed it is basically a more efficient Scepter of Fugue...And we all take that Scepter deadly seriously! (You may recall it helped to win a Pro Tour last year.)

Ondu Cleric
Bala Ged Thief

On its own Bala Ged Thief might not be built to impress (and in fact, at double the cost and size of a Ravenous Rats, a lone Bala Ged Thief offers not much more in terms of discard efficacy), but next to a bunch of other Allies it can put the opponent on their empty-handed heels and almost surgically pull hated mass removal out of the other player's hand (potentially quite important for a strategy that involves dumping a lot of creatures, that is cards, onto the battlefield without support from either Counterspells or burn).

Surprising? Yes.

We are surprised a card like this can do anything at all because it is costed so funny. We aren't used to 2/2 creatures for four mana bothering anyone (at least outside the Wizards team); creatures have gotten so good over the last several years. But the fact remains: if you don't kill a Bala Ged Thief in a heavy Allies deck it will actually take away your ability to do so.

There are lots of funnily-costed Allies that we wouldn't consider playing in serious Constructed. If we would be surprised at Bala Ged Thief making an impact at four mana, there is little chance we could comprehend losing to a Joraga Bard; four mana again...But this time one power. The ability? Rather than card advantage, conditional vigilance. No. Not ever. Never.

Murasa Pyromancer? The ability is quite powerful on its face...But the card is also very expensive, especially when we consider the frame it is attached to. We are used to getting 5/5 or even 6/6 flying creatures with even more special abilities for this cost. We need something that is going to wow a Baneslayer Angel for this investment...Not something that will trade with a one-mana removal spell. Like Bala Ged Thief, Murasa Pyromancer needs to be surrounded on the battlefield by more Allies in order to make anything significant of itself.

That's the crux of the problem, isn't it?

In order to generate value, you need a lot of Allies out, where they can potentially walk into Day of Judgment (which would undo much of that value of putting them in the line of fire in the first place). The problem is, with rare exception—usually surrounding very fast tribes—that is just bad Magic!

So for our competitive Constructed look at Allies, I am going to pull something out of the veritable Governor of Alaska bag and break with format a little bit. It would be easy to go over all the awkwardly-costed Allies and tell you why they aren't going to be very good in sixties (relative to their sometimes quite welcome inclusions in forties) but instead we're going to break to see what helps to make one of the Allies more viable in Constructed deck.

Kazandu Blademaster

I think you would be hard pressed to find a player who would not agree that Kazandu Blademaster is probably the best of the Allies for serious sixties. Kazandu Blademaster is a "perfect storm" of sorts. This is a two-drop (in a game largely defined by great two-drops) that would be perfectly good even if it were not an Ally.

WW for a 2/2 (that is 1/1 with a +1/+1 counter) with both first strike and another ability is basically what you get in white, what we have all gotten from white since White Knight. Protection from black there, reach on Longbow Archer, lifelink from Knight of the Meadowgrain...And now vigilance on the Kazandu Blademaster.

In addition, Kazandu Blademaster is a Soldier, so it gets to piggyback on the Soldier synergies built into Magic 2010 (you know, from Veteran Armorsmith and Veteran Swordsmith), the same way that Elite Vanguard can; in fact, Kazandu Blademaster can continue the curve one-to-two in the Soldiers squad.

Just a great card, right? The kind of card you would expect for WW?

But Kazandu Blademaster is also an Ally. That means that even if you play it "just" as another Soldier in a White Weenie deck, you have the potential to explode into 3/3 or even greater proportions, and in multiples. It combines with white creature-pumping cards, Soldier-pumping cards, and additional copies of itself...Lots of potential for a very modest mana investment, the definition of the best.

Oran-Rief Survivalist

I mention this second because as a card, as an Ally, it seems such a pale comparison to Kazandu Blademaster, at least head-to-head. Is the Survivalist the next best Ally for Constructed? Maybe, maybe not; Oran-Rief Survivalist has a very friendly cost, and is even easier to cast than the Blademaster.

But despite looking weaker than the Blademaster, Oran-Rief Survivalist is eerily exactly what we might expect for its cost, too.

, 2/2...

And if you consider the ability to get a bit larger, or link up with other Allies Voltron-style...

Ashcoat Bear

None of these creatures, of course, inspires us to new and different (or at least differently successful) Constructed decks. So knowing that we have the potential (as with the Blademaster) to improve to 3/3 and more, where might we want to play this?

Obviously Oran-Rief Survivalist as a discreet option as a general deck choice would be an unusual one for a Constructed deck, at least outside a heavily Allies home (just go back and look at all those vanilla 2/2 Bears), but my friend and colleague Brian David-Marshall has an interesting idea: Alongside...

I have been playing around with Turntimber Ranger in a deck based on Nissa Revane.

When compared with other planeswalkers, Nissa has some really restrictive dependencies. Now obviously you have to start with four copies of Nissa's Chosen. Even if you are only going to play two or three copies of Nissa herself (and this in and of itself may not be likely if you are going to play her at all), you need the full complement of Nissa's Chosen to make the planeswalker worth anything. Nissa's Chosen curves better than its better half, and you really do need "fuel" to keep Nissa's threat production going...Unlike Garruk or Elspeth, Nissa doesn't do the deed by her lonesome.

The odd thing is that, unlike any of the other planeswalkers, Nissa has even more dependencies as the game progresses. Ultimately anyone playing with a planeswalker wants access to the ability to activate its final ability. We want to one-way Living Death, one-way Armageddon, Overrun, whatever. Nissa's final ability is arguably one of the more dramatic ones (more dramatic than the favorites attached to Elspeth or Ajani Goldmane, anyway), but how much card advantage you can generate, or even just how flashy you can look while you are taking your last big turn, is contingent on having a goodly number of Elves in your deck for Nissa to find. The more cardboard you invest, the better she looks.

It's one thing to have four Elvish Archdruids and four Bloodbraid Elves; even without triggering Cascade, an exploding Nissa Revane can make those eight Elves hastily lethal...But in this case, I just wanted more. It is so challenging to get Nissa to seven that you are bound to draw into (and lose) Elvish Archdruids and Bloodbraid Elves along the way; for Nissa to have any potential come turn nine or so, she needs something to find. A lot of something to make the trek really worthwhile. Turntimber Ranger is actually one of the bigger and scarier Elves you can get in Standard, Ally or no, but doubly rewarding in multiples.

Turntimber Ranger
Nissa Revane

It has actually been pretty good. Ranger is kind of a microcosm of an Allies deck in one card: Elf and Wolf—Allies working together. A single mana step down from Broodmate Dragon, Turntimber Ranger is like a discounted version of that awesome finisher; still two bodies, but just less impressive bodies in this case. Five total power instead of eight, but more, different upside.

A second Turntimber Ranger just doesn't come up that often (naturally), but it would be cool if it did. More power, more Wolves, more threatening danger. BDM's suggestion of including Oran-Rief Survivalist was an attempt in beefing up the bonus on Turntimber Ranger, of adding the intended Allies flavor to an otherwise Elves-themed angle of attack. It is a place where we can touch Allies with fringe-playable cards to ride the bonus, but we are still playing with relatively strong Allies; note that he didn't suggest a Tajuru Archer even though it is actually [also] both Elf and Ally.

This is neither here nor there, but like the best of the Allies (Kazandu Blademaster), this card has some fantastic visuals!

Highland Berserker

I think it was Zvi Mowshowitz who pointed out that there should be special rules for evaluating Red cards. Red cards are "better" just because they are Red, even when they look like they are much worse than the equivalents in other colors. Case in point: Ironclaw Orcs is by every measure a weaker card than Grizzly Bears, but while Grizzly Bears has largely avoided any flirtation with successful Constructed decks, Ironclaw Orcs was a defining contributor to the most important Red Decks ever.

The same notion carries with Highland Berserker.

This is a 2/1 creature for 1R, which in any other world (you know, not one where decks can so readily have UUU, BB, RR, and GW all in the same deck) would be tantamount to holding up a sign that said "sign me up for Red Deck." Dave Price himself played Firebrand Ranger in a deck that could not produce green mana and Rage Weaver in a deck with only red creatures; he wanted some two-drops that could chump-block Blastoderm and there they were.

Highland Berserker is just much better than cards that made the Top 8 of Worlds in the hands of Hall of Famer Mike Turian at this same mana cost.

Will the first strike come up often, particularly in a Red Deck with few other Allies? Probably not, but because we evaluate red cards differently, we can pretend that it will come up...And still fail to do a red two-drop justice in our rating.

So of course you can go on Gatherer and look up every card that has the subtype "Ally" and cram them all into a deck linear-like, in the hopes of wrecking the opponent's hand while gaining life and generating a more and bigger Alliance. When you win with 43 life, a seven-to-nil differential in hand size, and a swarm of +1/+1 counters scattered across your Allies so prolific you can't even tell which creatures they are supposed to be sitting on it feels good...But it might also be good (maybe more good) to try to play Allies in other decks just because the cards themselves are pretty good, even out-of-tribe. After all, the majority of decks with a Bloodbraid Elf have 0-2 more cascade cards and the most dangerous landfall compliment to Ob Nixilis, the Fallen might actually be non-landfall Knight of the Reliquary rather than actual landfall Khalni Heart Expedition; both threats look to be turning out just fine.

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