Using Your Graveyard for Fun and Profit

Posted in Top Decks on January 23, 2015

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

Last week, I talked about how to update some of the current Top Decks (see, that's my column name, so I'm being synergistic), so this week I want to head in a new direction. That direction is straight to the graveyard, as there are a couple really powerful cards that reward you for heading there. While I do like drawing lots of cards, I have to admit that it's much easier to send cards directly to the graveyard, and cards like Commune with the Gods and Satyr Wayfinder are evidence of that. Therefore, if you can utilize the graveyard well enough, it's like having a hand of 20 cards in the middle of the game. Apparently all I needed to do was translate "cards in graveyard" to "cards in hand" to get excited about graveyard decks, although I guess the efforts of Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Alesha, Who Smiles at Death help.

These are three of the most powerful cards in the set, and they reward you handsomely for putting them in the right deck. They even span all five colors, when you look at the activation costs, which is funny, but I guess there's no reason to leave anyone out. They open the door to plenty of hybrid decks, and there are plenty of ways to go about taking advantage of them.

Tasigur Whip

The first deck looks suspiciously like Sidisi Whip decks from prior formats, but that's mainly because Tasigur and Torrent Elemental are in all the same colors as Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. The combo of these Sultai cards is just too good to ignore, so I figure I'll start there.

Tasigur Whip

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The addition of Tasigur gives you incentive to play Commune with the Gods, as dumping cards in your graveyard is even more valuable than before—a theme you will see repeated in other decks with Tasigur. A quick Tasigur can pressure the opponent and pick you up a bunch of extra cards, all of which will fuel more digging and more delving. I also like max Tasigurs, as he will run away with the game if not dealt with. The first Tasigur also fuels the second, and so forth, as each activation makes you end up with net +1 card in your graveyard (+2 if you are very unlucky and flip two lands with all lands in the bin). That makes this legendary creature one that is okay to play lots of, which is not always the case.

When you activate Tasigur, you are pretty happy with getting almost anything back except Sylvan Caryatid and Satyr Wayfinder, which is why there are still three Murderous Cuts in the deck. Normally, delve cards don't combo with other delve cards, as they are competing for the same resources, but Tasigur does play well with others. Once you've started activating Tasigur, you actively want to delve away all the bad spells in your graveyard, giving your opponent no choice but to give you back your best options. You also want a lot of delve in order to ensure that you are exiling your Torrent Elementals at every opportunity, as that card becomes an unkillable (and un-exilable) threat once your deck supports it.

Between Sidisi and Tasigur, this deck can threaten the opponent much earlier than most Whip decks do. A turn-three Sidisi followed by a removal spell and a Tasigur on turn four is a huge clock, and Torrent Elemental again rears its head when you are on the aggro plan. If you can get your opponent's life total to around 10 with your first rush, just one hit from Torrent Elemental plus whatever else you have should probably finish off him or her, and once Torrent Elemental is lethal, your opponent is in a bad spot. It doesn't go away very easily at all, and if the opponent is in a position to have to keep spending cards on it or die, you have the lock.

Tasigur isn't guaranteed to show up in the same deck as Wayfinder, Courser, and Caryatid, but just about every time I try to build a Standard deck with Tasigur, those do end up making it in. The combo of self-mill, ramp, and knowing what your top card is when deciding when to activate Tasigur is an appealing one, and Tasigur works very well with this trio. For example, take Abzan Control with Tasigur:

Abzan Control

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The addition of Wayfinder, Tasigur, and Murderous Cut makes this deck play way more efficiently in the middle stages of the game. One of the things I disliked about Abzan Midrange/Control before is that it's pretty much locked in to playing one spell per turn until late in the game, and this build gets around that. You aren't looking to rush out a turn-three Tasigur, although that will happen sometimes, and often you should look to play him on a turn where you can immediately activate him. This deck is all about attrition (and Siege Rhinos; Abzan is always about Siege Rhino), and making Tasigur into a guaranteed two-for-one is huge. Playing him for one or two mana, having him eat a spell of three or more mana, and getting the card back for an additional four mana is a very favorable exchange. It's even better when Tasigur finds you the second Tasigur, or Abzan Charms that help dig, and with Liliana, five card draw spells, and three Tasigurs, it's not all that unlikely.

I have a wide range of removal here because all of these cards are great, and I think playing a mix gets you the highest value. Between all the various scry cards, Abzan Charm, Liliana Vess, and Tasigur, you have a lot of ways to look for and find a particular card, so the first copy of a new effect is much more valuable than any other number. I'm not saying this just because I like one-ofs (although I do very much), but because there are many cards in this deck that reward building in such a way.

This deck is not very aggressive, although a fast Tasigur or Siege Rhino can kill the opponent, and when playing this all you really are looking to do is get value. Your cards efficiently trade one for one, and you have plenty of sources of card advantage ready and waiting to get you ahead in the late game. I almost want to fit more End Hostilities in, but Courser/Caryatid are so good, and they don't combo very well with End Hostilities. You could play Crux of Fate in this deck, as you have slightly more black sources, but given that you aren't playing Dragons, End Hostilities is going to be much safer. No reason to randomly lose to a board of Stormbreath Dragon + Shaman of the Great Hunt, as Crux of Fate is unable to kill both.

I like that this deck doesn't ask much of you; survive long enough, and things will fall into place. The exception is against Blue-Black Control, where it is favored in the long game, but having inevitability against the majority of the format is a fine place to be (and it isn't like Blue-Black is unbeatable, especially once you sideboard in some Nissas).

Speaking of inevitability, what about a much more aggressive deck that goes in the opposite direction?

Black-Green Graveyard Aggro

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This deck draws inspiration from the old black-green graveyard deck that was in Return to Ravnica-Theros Standard. It's looking to use its graveyard in an aggressive manner, dumping tons of cards in and using them to fuel the combination of delve cards and Nighthowlers. That is a bit of a conflict of interest, but I like that both delve cards and 'howlers use the same enablers, which makes it way more likely you are getting some kind of value from your Wayfinders and Communes, even if you will occasionally have to choose which path you want to take.

Using Elvish Mystic and the two-mana self-mill cards, you want to drop an early Tasigur or Mandrills, although Rakshasa Deathdealer and Heir of the Wilds do a good job beating down themselves. Nighthowler and Herald of Torment are how you are looking to finish things off, and they combine very well with Mandrills or Rakshasa to threaten tons of damage out of nowhere.

Soulflayer is a card I considered, but it really wants some kind of evasion to be good, and Herald was the only flier I wanted to play. Mandrills is comparable to Soulflayer, and trample is the evasion I was looking for, so until Vampire Nighthawk gets reprinted, I think Soulflayer gets to be second banana behind Mandrills.

Another card you could add is Scout the Borders. It too flips a bunch of cards, but the third mana was enough that I was no longer interested.

The aggressive way of using Tasigur may be a good way to attack while still playing for the long game, and I'm curious if there is enough synergy here to make the deck a viable alternative to something like Abzan Aggro.

Turn That Frown Upside Down

Alesha is a powerful card, but she comes with some questions. What is the most powerful way to use her ability? Is she better in an aggro deck or a combo deck? Why is she so happy to face the Grim Reaper? I can't answer the last one, but I can take a stab at the first two.

Alesha, Who Swings for Three

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Alesha has a few cool combos going on here, but this is the more blunt way to utilize her particular set of skills. She attacks for 3 and brings back creatures that died or that you discarded to Tormenting Voice. That's a good amount of value from a three-drop, and maybe there's no need to get too fancy.

The rest of the deck isn't short of combos either. Tormenting Voice discards Flamewake Phoenix, which can conveniently come back as long as you get one of your prowess creatures up to 4 power (or just cast Defiant Strike on Alesha, letting her get multiple creatures back). All the spells make it so Mentor, Seeker, and Swiftspear overperform, and Soulfire Grand Master picks you up extra life and cards.

The combination of aggressive creatures, removal, and card advantage could be a nice one, and I'm smiling just thinking about it.

When looking at how to get Hornet Queen back, things get a little wilder. Clearly, that is the card you want to use Alesha to fetch, as it's the best and most expensive 2-power creature in the format, so how can we make that happen?

Alesha, Who Likes Fancy Combos

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Here, Alesha is used to summon back Hornet Queens and the odd Courser or Wayfinder, enabled by Tormenting Voice, Satyr Wayfinder, and Commune with the Gods. Whip of Erebos also does the same, and further pushes the combo focus of this deck.

The start of turn-three Alesha threatens a turn-four reanimate off either Tormenting Voice or the two-drop mill cards, which means that your opponent is going to try very hard to kill her. If your opponent doesn't, you are in good shape, and if he or she does, you have ways to find more copies or just get Whip going. I like that this deck sees a ton of cards each game, letting it assemble its combo and present a steady stream of threats. Even if Alesha isn't getting back Queen, pulling back Courser or Wayfinder is still value, and the one Reclamation Sage gives you a lot of outs to Whip and Chained to the Rocks.

Of course, Tasigur still shows up here, just because of how good he is, but this is a deck focused on Alesha, even if it does play both.

Tasigur and Alesha are going to enable many powerful decks in the upcoming months, and it's not clear what exactly those decks will look like. I've taken a few stabs here, but there are many ways to go, and Torrent Elemental will probably factor in to some of them. It's more of a backup singer than the high-profile legends, but backup singers are important too. Regardless, the graveyard is a busy place these days, and I'm curious to see what will come out of it next.


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