The Underground made a fine pair of showings at Grand Prix—Houston, with Ben finishing fourth and Brian second. The deck exploded in popularity overnight, with its most impressive showing likely in the hands of Alexander Witt.
Witt ran through the single-elimination Masters Gateway at Nice and then ran through the single-elimination Masters itself to take the title. I told you it was impressive!
So what made this deck the sickest ever?
On a baseline, the deck could build a single powerful attacker, the most iconic of which was the Quirion Dryad (before the Miracle Grow family, Quirion Dryad had never been considered a dangerous creature); however in these decks the Dryad got very big indeed, a stack of +1/+1 counters kind of exalting the attacker.
In absence of a Quirion Dryad (Witt only played three, heh), the deck was famous for its threshold spells. If you have been playing a little over a year or more, you probably recognize Mystic Enforcer as a dominating staple of Predator.dec from Time Spiral. Well, when threshold was new... It wasn't really played very much because it was not consistently easy to get seven cards into the graveyard. However, as the formats got bigger and players could combine dual lands, Gush, and green creatures, threshold became a viable strategy.
Of course sickestever.dec was full of permission spells, specifically free permission spells. Ben, Brian, Alexander, or one of the infinite adopters of the deck could tap out for an attacker and protect it with a Foil or Daze. Now here's where the strategy gets really sick. Winter Orb reduced both players to basically one land per turn (plus a potential drop). It didn't matter how many lands a player had in play... They were just untapping one. Now normally players shy against cards like Gush, Daze, and Foil because they can give up board position or card advantage; however with a Winter Orb in play, the values of certain cards change. The green-white-blue deck could untap exactly one land if it had three lands in play... or 300. It didn't matter to the deck. Moreover, it always had a land to play the next turn. Convenient!
Now on the subject of green-white-blue decks and Hall of Famers, Jelger Wiergsma played this at the skins game Pro Tour—Philadelphia (Kamigawa Block):
(Oh... and Steve Wolfman made Top 8 with the same strategy).
This pre-Bant green-white-blue deck offers some different insights to the color combination. The spirit of exalting a single attacker, of having a single important creature, is shown by Time of Need. Sometimes you need to hold off an army with your Patron of Kitsune; sometimes you can blow up the entire army with Myojin of Cleansing Fire; sometimes you just need a Clouded Mirror of Victory and Meloku can set up a two turn clock for you. Mostly, you're probably just cleaning up with Yosei.
Moreover, this deck showcases the versatile philosophy of the Bant shard; the green-white-blue deck does many different things well... mana acceleration, board control, creature-based attack offense, time control in the late game. We can see the slowdown of the opponent's offense combined with the efficiency of the green-white-blue's own attack, mingled at the same time with a challenging mana cost in a card like Rhox War Monk. While the requirements are about as difficult as they come at three mana, the power is right where it should be, the fourth toughness ensures its ability to tangle with creatures of equal mana cost (and walk away)... the lifelink... I guess that's there just to make sure you didn't miss playing with this efficient creature.
So enough about the green-white-blue heritage (for now)... What about the modern Bant cards? What is interesting about them? Where do they fit in the puzzle of Standard deck design?
For this part I decided to go over the Shards of Alara cards in blue, green, and / or white to discuss where we might see some of the blue, green, and white cards in Constructed; there will be some inevitable overlap with last week's article, but I am tackling the material from a slightly different angle. Please forgive.
Location: Block Role Player, most likely in a control deck
The Panoramas suffer for speed. They seem like mediocre first turn plays (compare with two-color fixers from other formats, such as Windswept Heath), and soak up all your mana on the second turn. Generally these cards will be best in decks that can use the colorless mana, which seems to be in tension with the fact that they fix three ways. The Panoramas are obviously playable... they are just slow. Given the wide variety of mana-fixing lands in Standard, including Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool, I do not think that Panoramas will be very popular in Standard, at least not until next year.
Location: Block Staple; Standard Role Player, most likely in a Quick'N'Toast variant (Standard)
This cycle seems significantly better than the Panoramas to me. While the Panoramas come into play untapped, whether they are actually useful immediately really depends what kind of a deck they are positioned in.
Seaside Citadel seems like the kind of card you want next to your Reflecting Pool; the question is if you would rather have a Seaside Citadel or a Vivid Creek; in my testing so far, it seems I would rather have a Vivid Creek. In my decks with 6-8 Vivid lands, I rarely use all the counters before the conclusion of a game. As such, the counters don't seem like a huge drawback relative to the ability to tap for all five colors instead of just three. If Seaside Citadel sees play in Standard, my guess is that it would be in a deck that only wants the three Bant colors rather than a full Quick'N'Toast of five, or even just four colors. The reason is that this cycle of lands comes into play tapped, a sizable drawback. If you are going to tolerate that, it is likely that a Vivid land would be more useful more often. That said, these can easily be "fifth" or "sixth" copies of particular lands in a deck's mana mix. Probably they will increase in popularity in Standard next year.
Location: White Weenie, specifically "exalted" White Weenie
This card is a superb one-drop because it will consistently attack for 2 damage on the second turn. Should you play a Sigiled Paladin on the second turn, Akrasan Squire will in fact attack for 3 damage. Unlike most one-drops, if you rip this one later in the game, the exalted can stack with whatever you are actually using for offense at that point in the game, and therefore actually be relevant unlike most one-drops. See also Ranger of Eos, below.
Knight of the White Orchid
Location: White Weenie, "Blue-White Control" (sideboard)
This card is a great equalizer. It makes going second pretty palatable. You already know how it should work in White Weenie, but here is a scripted scenario for some kind of a Blue-White Control (even Quick'N'Toast variant), going second.
All in all, a very exciting card.
Location: Exalted White Weenie
A 3/3 for two is good most anywhere, but I think most of this card's play will come from other exalted creatures.
Location: Sideboards of many stripes
Several years ago, during Odyssey Block PTQs, my friend Tony "the Shark" Tsai figured out exactly how to win the green-white-blue vs. green-white-blue Mirari's Wake mirror (not Bant-ish at all, ironically). The Cunning Wish based Wake decks of the era typically had access to only 1-2 copies of Ray of Distortion in the sideboard. A lot of players would use Ray of Distortion to get any kind of an advantage (after all it had flashback); Tony's innovation was to sit there and never cast (or even look for) his Ray unless the opponent had Mirari or Mirari's Wake. He used this pinpoint flashback spell very strategically, conserving it only for the opponent's big breaker whereas the opponent might waste it on Compulsion or something odd, which allowed Tony to clean up in the very late game.
As a sideboard card I have been thinking about Hindering Light from that long game perspective. At present it seems too narrow to me for widespread maindeck play, but if you only want to stop a specific late game spell that particular opponents use to take control of or win the game, then that is a different story (you even have a ton of time to find Hindering Light). It seems like a good solution to, say, Violent Ultimatum. I think the trick may be to save Hindering Light instead of burning it for a worthless two-for-one at a point in the game where card advantage will eventually be eroded and specific cards become much more important.
Gift of the Gargantuan
Location: Mid-range creature decks
I don't know if this card is properly Bant... only that it's properly great. Gift of the Gargantuan reminds me a bit of Kodama's Reach, and of Compulsive Research (only in green). You typically hit both types of cards in a green deck (provided you play sufficient creatures, which is something you have to get right during the deck design portion... but anything north of 15 will probably be enough), and you get some selection in the bargain. This card can help "dig" into a deck to find a particular creature, or just net cards (like a blue deck often wants to do). If you haven't tried this card, I suggest you get in on the fun; it's better in practice than it looks.
Location: Almost any deck that can muster green-white-blue, anywhere between Block and Extended
Maybe it was fate (green-white-blue vs. black-red)... but on top of anything else, Bant Charm addresses the inherent control vulnerability to Demigod of Revenge (Standard). It is a "Putrefy" that can knock Akroma out of the sky and keep her out of an easy re-reanimation zone (Extended).
Fast, light, and versatile... There is no way I have to sell you on this card; very likely Bant Charm is my favorite card in Shards of Alara.
Rhox War Monk
Location: A mid-range creature deck; the sideboard of a Bant-accessible control deck
Think about following up Shorecrasher Mimic with this creature on turn three!
What makes Rhox War Monk compelling as a sideboard card is the combination of its lifelink and early game toughness. Drop it on turn three and slow the beatdown to a crawl. Make attacking painful while sitting back with a Condemn in hand. A heck of a lot better against red than black, though!
Ranger of Eos
Location: White Weenie
This is kind of a White (Weenie) Gift of the Gargantuan... A route to card advantage and selection customized to a particular strategy in a kind-of unusual color. What you can actually get might not seem that impressive on first blush, but remember that the Ranger is itself a body, and that the subsequent bodies can fill specific roles; for example a pair of Akrasan Squires can boost an exalted attacker for two more damage, a Goldmeadow Harrier can hold off a usually hard-to-deal-with Oversoul of Dusk mid-game, or a Burrenton Forge-Tender can completely shut down an opponent's removal suite (Firespout in Quick'N'Toast)... or entire deck (Shamans)!
Location: Standard and Block sideboards, for and against exalted
Elspeth presents a difficult problem for decks focusing on "exalted"-style attacks: She is a "Fog machine" and can completely contain a single attacker while generating value and increasing loyalty. One of the things I like about her is that she kind of forces the opponent to over-commit offensively, ensuring a two-for-one with Wrath of God.
On balance, her second ability makes an exalted attacker even more singularly powerful (and evasive) for a turn.
The question on Elspeth is her payoff. Producing a gigantic count of flying Dragons, blowing up all the opponent's lands, lethal "Overrun" effect... These are obviously "win the game" abilities. However, Elspeth simply makes it difficult for the opponent to interact with your permanents. Will this win the game? In some cases, I think definitely yes, which is why I am initially classifying Elspeth as a sideboard card only. On the other hand, there are a lot of opponents who will want to attack you directly, fly over your creatures, whatever... these can essentially ignore Elspeth on eight.
Knight-Captain of Eos
Location: White Weenie sideboard
Knight-Captain of Eos is an interesting card to contrast against Cloudgoat Ranger. They are both five-mana creatures that produce Soldiers; Cloudgoat Ranger is considered the Siege-Gang bomb of the Kithkin deck. How good can Knight-Captain of Eos be?
As I said, it is smaller and lacks the ability to increase power. The Knight-Captain produces fewer tokens. It's clearly not the offensive powerhouse that Cloudgoat Ranger is (even if Knight-Captain can also single-handedly trip Windbrisk Heights). However, given a supply of Soldiers, Knight-Captain of Eos can really hold off the opponent's offense as a Fog machine. Given the modern White Weenie deck's ability to strike for lethal in one attack, having a Fog machine that is a potential threat seems like it could be a very useful thing.
Kiss of the Amesha
Location: "Blue-White Control"
However outside of Quick'N'Toast, Kiss of the Amesha can be a viable maindeck card. Its effect is quite potent, and rolled into a single card. Many "Blue-White" players struggle with the ability to gain life after they've been beaten down by attackers. Kiss of the Amesha can fill the void for them. Don't worry! They can justify it as a card drawing spell.
If you can get this in play, you're probably going to win. You can't really be damaged unless the opponent pours eight or more into the Archangel first, which is difficult due to the shroud. You basically can't die to combat damage while it's in play. At the same time, it's a four-turn clock with all kinds of dodgeball filtered in.
I hope you enjoyed this slightly different look and philosophical continuation of last week's article. I think Bant has the potential to compete with the best of decks in Standard and other formats. Bant Charm in particular has the power of one million exploding suns; it is just waiting to be unleashed.