"I had this teacher who kept telling me that if I was ever in a fair fight, someone had made a mistake[.]"
-Jim Butcher, Cold Days
I've always been a bit suspicious of the Orzhov. They seemed dubious to me from the first time I read a preview via Mark Rosewater.
"The idea behind a bleeder deck is the deck brings the game to a halt and then slowly picks away at the opponent. The name comes from the fact that the deck doesn't win quickly but does so by slowly bleeding the opponent to death. The archetype works well on both a flavor and a mechanical level.
"The key to making it work was to play up the individual aspects of white and black that help make a bleeder deck work. As such, you will see that the white has a larger dose than normal of spells that slow down the opponent while black has more cards that nibble away at them."
-Mark Rosewwater, "If You Guild It, They Will Come"
At the time I was coming off an Extended Pro Tour where I had voluntarily played B/W Cycling Control—I guess you could call it proto to Rosewater's "bleeder" archetype—and prior to the actual release of the Orzhov guild in Guildpact. Yes, other mages had Watery Grave or Sacred Foundry, but I was stuck with just Caves of Koilos.
There were lots of things right about my deck, as was often the case in those days. I went undefeated against Affinity decks, beat the broken combo deck and the hawt gnu tek of Life from the Loam, but lost to the thoroughly unremarkable and predictable strategies like Tooth and Nail. I decided post-tournament that grinding out my opponents with the small advantages of white and black—white and black together in this case—"was just not powerful," and Mark's description of the then upcoming Orzhov Syndicate reaffirmed my every suspicion.
Separately, around that time, Zvi Mowshowitz was trying to get me on board with his theory to never play The Rock. And Orzhov, despite being B/W rather than B/G, seemed tailor made to be The Rock.
At the actual Orzhov debut of Pro Tour Honolulu, my worst suspicions were validated. Playing for Top 8, Ben Goodman—who had at that point put on quite a show with his many small incremental advantages—got all his toys, even locking Osyp Lebedowicz's Keiga, the Tide Star under quintessential bleeder Pillory of the Sleepless. It turned out that having all one's toys could only go so far (based on what toys they were). Osyp went over the top of Ben's strategy, winning with an Urzatron-fueled big Blaze and consecutive swarms from Meloku the Clouded Mirror in consecutive games.
Actual Orzhov still bad (even when you get your toys)!
Then something interesting happened.
Through probably my most focused and sustained period of Pro Tour preparation ever, I decided to play Orzhov myself. I went undefeated Day 1 and finished 11-3 with the [previously] seemingly bad Orzhov Syndicate in front of me. Three Godless Shrines. No Angel of Despair. This would have been good for Top 8 in most Pro Tours; sadly, it was not an individual Pro Tour.
For me, the Orzhov victories were a series of improbable successes. I picked my deck for the primary reason that it was the best deck we tested against aggro strategies. At one point, I went 10-0 against our litmus test G/R Giant Solifuge deck! I had a good anti-control sideboard and felt like I could beat anything but Patrick Chapin's Five-Color Control.
Over the course of two days I won lots of different ways, but mostly by doing stuff like putting Gleancrawler's ability on the stack when all my men were enchanted with Pillory of the Sleepless...and sacrificing them all to Ghost Council of Orzhova. Stuff like that over and over. Everything was good blocks, a little discipline, killing creatures, or bleeding the opponent down a point or two at a time. We went into the Pro Tour thinking—like most teams—that Loxodon Hierarch was the best card in Ravnica block, but it turned out that I took more souls with Blind Hunter than with Ghost Council of Orzhova (supposedly my ace four-drop). Bleeding—and the haunt mechanic—turned out great!
What happened in the in-between?
Here's the thing: lots of Magic players have opinions. Rather, they have biases. They say fairly not useful things like "Cranial Extraction [and cards like it] is never good." They have all these crazy generalizations. Like we talked about in "Everybody Hates Midrange," after one Pro Tour bad showing by The Rock (where it was the most popular deck), it got to be all posh for players at all levels to hate The Rock; as you probably gathered from my initial skepticism around Orzhov and Mark's "bleeding" strategy, I was at least initially among them.
Biases against cards like Cranial Extraction—and its descendants Thought Hemorrhage, Memoricide, and of course Slaughter Games today—are not validated by fact, logic, or history. When Cranial Extraction was legal, I had it in every awesome deck I made. Jushi Blue obv three. We played three in Josh Ravitz's MONO-RED US Nationals Top 8 deck! When Antoine Ruel took my Critical Mass to Worlds, he added black to add those same three Cranial Extractions I played in every other winning strategy I made back then. Memoricide didn't just win the 2010 World Championships—it was in BOTH DECKS in the finals! Today many players think that Sphinx's Revelation is the best card in Standard...and the absolute best card against that expensive spell is probably the uncounterable Slaughter Games.
I think the same kinds of players that dislike / badmouth Cranial Extraction are the same players that persist in their sight unseen skepticism around Orzhov-style bleeding. It might not be good against some sort of imagined enemy [that you are probably good against anyway], so it must never be good. Here's the thing: Magic is this huge game of many, many possibilities. We all love a game where a first-turn Arid Mesa can give rise to millions of possibilities. Is it about to become a basic Mountain and then a Goblin Guide? Will it become a Steam Vents? Or is this a bigger format where it will birth a Volcanic Island? If it is a Volcanic Island, will we see a Delver of Secrets or a Brainstorm? In any case, will that Island Mountain—Volcanic Island or Steam Vents—imply a control deck, traditional combo...or Storm combo?
Obviously, because we are focused on Orzhov today, it will become a Godless Shrine.
Magic has a great many possibilities. Playing Magic, you can do basically whatever you want. Some of those things will be synergistic, others powerful; some very good, others merely cute. Where does Orzhov "bleeding" fall? I think it depends.
My personal failing with the deck was in the pre-Orzhov context where a grinding, B/W Cycling strategy was probably the 19th most powerful thing you could do. I positioned my deck to crush beatdown. I beat most of my beatdown opponents. But discard / disruption strategies have always Always ALWAYS been soft to topdecked Big Spells. They are good for slowing powerful opponents down...which means you still have to kill them. But give a man the opening to topdeck his Upheaval or assemble the requisite nine mana for a Tooth and Nail and you are probably back to even, if not just dead. I played against Dragonstorm in the first round!
When Osyp beat Goodman with Blaze and Meloku, he, again, went over the top of Ben's Ghost Dad grinding strategy, denying the validity of his hard fought incremental interactions. Pillory of the Sleepless is a passable card for containing certain creatures. It is actually a bit slow against legitimate beatdown creatures but is superb against Rumbling Slum or thereabouts. The "bleeding" aspect is attractive enough to justify the additional mana investment in a deck that's designed to shore up its fundamental issues.
… But it just isn't good against utility creatures. Ben was able to lock down Keiga (which was primarily a big body on offense), but Meloku worked its usual magic and overcame a mere Pacifism. Same when I turned what seemed like Pillory lockdown into a Gleancrawler Braingeyser.
Which is not to say that bleeding—or grinding [for value]—can't be powerful. It's just ineffective against Big Spell strategies. If they have the Big Spell in hand, making them discard it can be fine but will never stop them from drawing into another (especially if they are blue). Or if you are going to try to contain creatures with non-kill, you had best hope they aren't utility creatures.
But in a small format like Block Constructed?
Grinding value, just blocking creatures and getting a little ahead, can be awesome! Relative to a deck that is doing nothing but attacking and killing creatures one-for-one, you are actually the unfair half of the fight! If you can limit the universe of things the opponent might conceivably do, and you can deal with all those things via a pre-prepped system where you are constantly bleeding out a little extra value? That can be an exceedingly +EV proposition.
Rather, it's not a question of whether or not bleeding is bad, but positioning it where it might be good, advantageous, the not fair.
… All of which ultimately brings us to today's crop of new Orzhov cards.
The bleeding theme is still there and with the extort mechanic is increasingly explicit. Will extort be good [presumably in Standard]? Big fat "maybe." I think it is largely going to be about whether opponents will play fair [i.e., even more fair than you] or will dip into Big Spell type strategies. And of those, which Big Spells in particular?
I wouldn't mind putting my Alms Beast in front of a Hellrider, but I am not going to be happy in a five-drop fight between Obzedat, Ghost Council and Psychic Spiral. Does the default opponent care about your life total? When? Do you care about theirs? At least prior to Stage Three? An accurate read of the metagame, though, can give you exactly the right time(s) to play a grinding "bleeder" deck.
Alms Beast is a great example of a card that is easy to dismiss. When would you want to give your opponent's guys lifelink? (Cards like Cranial Extraction are never good.) That is the opposite of good grinding!
I can think of a couple of times actually. One of them is when your opponent is relatively creature poor. The Hunted Wumpus like frame on Alms Beast might just kill him before you have to worry about lifelink. Alms Beast is bigger than a Thragtusk (but also potentially conveniently a Beast); there are decks against which this might be the only consideration! Against a creature-poor deck, an Orzhov midrange deck probably has an excess of creature elimination and might be perfectly fine trading two cards for a Thragtusk. Wham, bam, etc.
The other context is when you don't care if the opponent is gaining life. Maybe you are playing a deeper game and plan to win with decking or some other exotic method. Or maybe you have something along the lines of a Timely Reinforcements and want to put some breathing room around your own life total. Or maybe you are planning to play a 20-turn game anyway and what small advantages the opponent obtains in Stage Two don't even matter to you.
It's big. It's not particularly expensive. There are times when the opposing lifelink isn't a big deal or a deal at all.
The guild and colors on this one are going to invite comparisons to Angel of Despair. Angel of Despair probably had broader applications. Though an obvious two-for-one (Vindicate on a big body), Angel of Despair always struck me as more of a sledgehammer than a bleeder.
5/5 flying for six mana is a not terrible deal, but state of the industry today is 5/5 flying for five... And with not just additional relevant abilities, but additional relevant abilities that can prove annoying for Deathpact Angel but savagely hump its presumed teammates from Lingering Souls land.
That said, like a 2.0 take on Thragtusk, Deathpact Angel has a kind of irresistible remnant / two-for-one superpower. Given the popularity of Thundermaw Hellkite, it is probably a good thing that the Cleric token doesn't have flying itself. This card is almost the definition of a broad deck definer...as long as you really want to play a relatively long game.
Getting this into play against even control should not be difficult given Cavern of Souls or value Unburial Rites. Once it is in play, you either crush with it or you work to untap with the Cleric in play. Once Deathpact Angel is online, it will be a substantial drag on control resources. Likely, though, you are going to have to plan for games that consistently last ten plus turns.
As I said when I played my own Orzhov first Ravnica around, you can make the bleeder deck absolute hell on the beatdown if you want. One secret of midrange is that you can actually consistently make a deck that is great both against beatdown and against control. You can even make a deck—like The Rock back when MikeyP won Grand Prix Las Vegas with it—that is good against control, excellent against beatdown, and almost irresistible against circa one combo deck. There is a reason everybody loved The Rock before they decided they hated The Rock!
Your enemy with this kind of deck tends not to be "combo decks" in general but Big Spell decks or decks that can out-midrange you. You know what kind of card would give these Orzhov guys problems? Trading Post. Liliana of the Dark Realms. Staff of Nin. One of those or a bigger Unburial Rites (of course). Less Angel of Serenity than Angel of Glory's Rise.
Ghost Council of Orzhova the first time around was everything to everyone. Good body for a dedicated but not excessive casting cost; a little built-in extort (before there was extort); that drop of life gain on an above average blocker. And if you got the Ghost Council out against control, it was like Deathpact Angel. Control had a devil of a time getting rid of it, and it was big enough to be a problem offensively.
The solution was generally just to go over the top. In our Hawaii story, Osyp went over the top of the Orzhov tools. Blaze or Invoke the Firemind to the face; Kamigawa Dragons or other legends that were more expensive and contextually more powerful.
Obzedat, Ghost Council invites some fairly obvious comparisons to the original Ghost Council. One more mana, one more p/t (not bad). Double the built-in extort (better than par for the stated cost of that ability). The big text box is pretty inviting, again, if you want to beat control. They don't have instant speed removal? Looks like they are going to have problems dealing with your 5/5. Of course, you can choose to not Blink Obzedat, in which case you have a pretty good blocker that already got you some value. It's big enough to tussle with the front side of a Thragtusk and will just eat anything like a Loxodon Smiter, Hellrider, or other conventional attacker.
The theme here is consistent: if you are willing to invest in a longer game where you stretch your Stage Two plays through turns 5, 6, and possibly beyond, Orzhov is going to reward you with cards that are good against both conventional attacks and predictable control elements. Planning for a ten-turn game—especially for a non-blue guild—might be something that you are uncomfortable doing in 2012 (but maybe you think Cranial Extraction is always bad). You are probably going to have to play lot of Dead Weight; you'll have to have maindeck point removal and discard / disruption at the very least. Patrick would laugh at you and say that half your deck is always bad against half the field. But once you get to the high Stage Two, it will be difficult to compete with your individual cards on the merits.
I think Treasury Thrull is the most interesting of the new dedicated Orzhov tools, both by itself and as an exemplar of extort / neo-bleeding in general.
Here we see extort as a one-mana tax that in return gives you a pseudo Shock. The same delta as Shock but at only half the offense. My sense is that—again in the context of a deck that wants to play an unusually long game—extort is aggressively costed; much more attractive for Standard than, say, Proliferate. Its delta is comparable to a Pillar of Flame. Many players (the ones who think Cranial Extraction is always bad probably) are going to point out that it does half the damage, which is obvious, but miss the fact that it is "free" in that it doesn't cost a card (only a mana) and that you actually get some beatdown resistance.
If you supplement your admittedly gelatinous Orzhov high end with a bunch of cheap one- and two-cost disruption and removal, you might just build yourself a little engine, one that can potentially help your deck win without having to attack. I think extort looks awesome for what it is supposed to be, but no amount of one point one for one grinding gets you out of an Upheaval. So if someone plays Omniscience, draws his deck, and then tanks for the next few minutes RE: what he is going to do now that he has all his cards and more than enough [effective] mana, your little advantages kind of all go away. Big Spells bad. Everybody hates midrange.
Now the other text on Treasury Thrull makes for a pretty irresistible threat. How about you use Alms Beast to buy time to get to Treasury Thrull (and leave back the 6/6) and now use Treasury Thrull as a kind of jerkier Ophidian? Terror that (drain one / gain one), get back my Scroll of Avacyn (drain one / gain one). Scroll of Avacyn? Hey, if you need to play earlier mana dumps, draw into your curve, and set yourself up with ample garbage going to the graveyard so you can get it back to engine up with your Treasury Thrull, you can certainly do worse.
Cards like Obzedat, Ghost Council are going to work well with the default white creature in Standard—Restoration Angel—and we already spent several paragraphs on Deathpact Angel. Angels. Scroll of Avacyn. Peanut butter and jelly. Getting a Treasury Thrull online with a little removal in hand is going to be absolute hell on little beaters.
Separately, how is a control deck supposed to beat a value deck with Cavern of Souls and Treasury Thrull? One Elixir of Immortality...somewhere? You are always going to get it back. You don't have to use it until you have to use it; ergo you can keep bleeding with the Treasury Thrull. But hey, drain one / gain one, right? (Then gain five.)
So... Suspicious of Orzhov.
There are some potential problems—weaknesses specifically—here. Your curve is bloated at four, five, and six. You kind of have to draw your cards in the right order. You are not in colors that can fix your draw. You need a little cooperation from the other side of the table. But if you get it? If your plan comes online? I don't see how you are ever at a disadvantage against conventional angles of attack. But threats...
I spent a lot of time a few months back working on strategies like Battle of Wits and Door to Nothingness. I think you will have realized at this point that Door to Nothingness was always a thing. Battle and other exotic victory conditions can easily reveal themselves as things as well. Gatecrash is giving us stuff like this:
By the way, this is a Human (might matter), and there are multiple sorts of Clone cards in Standard (e.g., Evil Twin). Chronic Flooding / Tracker's Instincts / various Clones / Angel of Glory's Rise? Even Omniscience + whatever comes next? This card is a non-non-issue. You can't easily grind or bleed out "I win the game" over the top effects.
Too bad stuff like Cranial Extraction is always bad or we might have a viable bleeder shell in Standard.