With every spoiler season in Magic, we're introduced to hundreds of new cards, each with a different plan and purpose. A few stand out as unique when they're first revealed, but once released they never go anywhere. Maybe the metagame isn't friendly to the card, perhaps because counterspells, graveyard removal, or consistent creatures that outclass or outpace them. Sometimes an exciting new card is a cool card mechanically or flavor-wise, but playtesting proves that the new offering isn't quite what it's cracked up to be in practice.
The most optimistic and exciting reason, however, is arguably the most simple: it's missing key complementary cards. For me, when I spy a neat new card from a spoiler, I start to browse Standard for synergetic cards and often come up with underwhelming and/or empty results. Nevertheless, I rarely worry; the next set often brings the ideal tools to make your build-around happen.
Today's article offers two decks that have emerged from this latency. Both concepts have been dormant for the last few months while they waited for the right cards to reach playability critical mass. With the arrival of each new set (regarding the first deck) and just the most recent set (regarding the second deck), I have tweaked and tested, refined and bolstered. Each of these decks has been in the wings for months, and now that Dragon's Maze has comfortably slid into the Standard arena, it's time to bring out these brawlers.
Our first list revolves around the first card I discussed on Untapped back in November.
As demonstrated by my articles Pyroconvergence, Guild Feud, and, more recently, Possibility Storm, I have a thing for red build-around enchantments. Burning Vengeance is a great foundational enchantment that does damage just for playing your spells. With its low cost and high flexibility, Vengeance has the potential to be a cheap, effective win condition all on its own.
It's clear that Burning Vengeance was made to complement the resurgence of flashback spells in Innistrad, but it has another subtle use.
If you haven't already guessed, I'm a pretty big Melvin. It doesn't say "flashback," so casting any card from your graveyard triggers Burning Vengeance. Gravecrawler, being both cheap and repeatable, provides a Zombie machine gun to continually recast to pick off small creatures or can go straight for the throat.
Zombie machine gun. Just wanted to say that again. [Editor's Note: Who can blame you?]
With the plan of using a powerful aggro card, of all things, as a combo piece, we need to add two major components to fill up the deck. The first is a barrel full of Zombies to make sure I can always recast Gravecrawler. The second component is a sacrifice outlet, and that's where Dragon's Maze pops in.
Another aggro card appears with a secondary use. While Varolz, the Scar-Striped is not a Zombie, he is one of the best and more relevant sacrifice outlets in Standard. In Pre-DGM testing, I discovered that I ran out of gas faster than an oil-burning Hummer. DGM offers a great solution that also fulfills component #1 in Blood Scrivener.
The ever-awesome lord Diregraf Captain would also make...oh. I'm in four colors now. Hmm…
Deathrite Shaman fixes mana, right? Right. Good enough. Here we go!
- 2 Armored Skaab
- 3 Blood Scrivener
- 3 Bloodthrone Vampire
- 2 Butcher Ghoul
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Diregraf Captain
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 1 Grimgrin, Corpse-Born
- 2 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
Out of 25 creatures, sixteen were appointed from the ranks of the undead. Gravecrawler is obviously an essential piece, so we'll step over it. Diregraf Captain, while both pumping your undead squad, also provides a win condition in and of itself if you can't find the Burning Vengeance. If you also have Burning Vengeance out, however, each sacrificed and recast cycle of Gravecrawler is a Lava Spike. Pretty good for one black mana.
Blood Scrivener can help restock my hand and fits perfectly on this three-heavy curve. Butcher Ghoul is a boring yet underrated addition to a more defensive Zombie list as it provides two blockers for the price of one. Armored Skaab is a solid wall that also has a good chance of adding a Gravecrawler to your yard. I added one Grimgrin, Corpse-Born for good measure; it's quite expensive for this deck, but it's a Zombie and just as synergetic as the other choices.
A full set of Deathrite Shaman does it all. Here, as you'll be flooding the yard with lands, it's a conditional mana dork that can help keep you in the game or your opponents out of reanimation. That archetype is still so prevalent, and Deathrite Shaman provides a great way to deal with it while also giving the deck the speed and consistency it needs to make the big plays.
The other five creatures are sacrifice outlets. Bloodthrone Vampire has the potential to be a win condition herself. By sacrificing a Gravecrawler and recasting it, you can use the Vengeance's trigger to clear a path and then smash through with an inflated Vampire for surprise lethal (my favorite kind of lethal). Varolz, the Scar-Striped, on the other hand, can permanently pump the team or build himself up, survive removal, and bash for the win. You really only need one or two Gravecrawlers, so feel free to turn the extras into a one-mana Cannibalize.
Thirteen spells thicken up this creature soup. We have Burning Vengeance of course, and then we have Liliana of the Veil, arguably the most powerful three-mana planeswalker ever made. She keeps the board state under control while keeping your opponent's hands empty. What do you care if you discard? Most of the other spells are flashback spells that help you search for the creatures you need. Desperate Ravings gives you positive card advantage when cast twice while also filling your graveyard with relevant castables. Tracker's Instincts helps you find either the Zombie you need to recover your Gravecrawler or the Gravecrawler itself. Faithless Looting is more of the same with a different mana cost and utility to diversify our search spell portfolio.
Deadly Allure is actually a very powerful removal spell in a wide variety of situations. Gravecrawler is small and, to our advantage, fragile. Forcing your opponent to block an otherwise paltry two damage loses you nothing and has the potential to take down their biggest creature: Thragtusk, Angel of Serenity, or even a Boros Reckoner. It's very inexpensive, easily facilitating a blowout for the unprepared and pushing your major assets through when you need to get in the red zone.
As with most truly four-color decks, the mana base was very challenging to create, and it still needs a lot of work. This started about six months ago as a Grixis list, but adding green naturally added more depth and utility. Black is definitely the primary color since most of the creatures require it and casting Gravecrawler over and over again needs a steady source of black mana; only four lands here can't produce it. A single Nephalia Drownyard facilitates either a slow win condition or another utility land to help find the pieces you need. It was difficult, but when I drew it, I was usually pleased (at least pleased enough to keep it).
The sideboard is highly metagame specific—as it should be. Make no mistake, Rest in Peace and Grafdigger's Cage own this deck. As such, you'll find five dedicated ways to deal with both in Ancient Grudge, Abrupt Decay, and Golgari Charm. Ancient Grudge can also take care of Pithing Needle (in case they side one in to pin down your sacrifice outlets) or Witchbane Orb. Rolling Temblor, a powerful flashback spell, can take out early aggressors, eating Burning-Tree Emissarys and even a nascent Champion of the Parish. It can also flatten your Diregraf Captain's Zombie team to inflict lethal life loss.
I liked one Slaughter Games to deal with whatever mess a deck presents. Naturally, Rest in Peace and graveyard hate might be at the top of this list, as might be Sphinx's Revelation or Angel of Serenity. Gnaw to the Bone is a favorite singleton of mine for the advantage engines of Jund Midrange that bleed you out with powerful creatures. Late in the game, casting this pre- and post-flashback can easily grant you copious amounts of life, giving you the crucial turns you need to stabilize and execute the finishing combo.
There are also six creatures: three Screeching Skaab and three Lotleth Troll that come in for different reasons. Against Naya Blitz decks, Screeching Skaab provides a synergetic Goblin Piker that fills your yard, blocks an X/2 and has the Zombie subtype we need. On the other hand, Lotleth Troll is very stout and can capably survive most "destroy" spells and combat. This multifaceted one-creature engine should come in where you need an impregnable creature bashing or walling safely turn after turn. It's possible these should be maindecked instead of the underwhelming Butcher Ghoul, but we'll see how it goes.
Regarding a sideboarding guide, I believe the sideboard plan should involve removing spells for spells and creatures for creatures. The maindeck flashback spells are mostly non-interactive, so replacing those with Rest in Peace hate is always the plan if you suspect they have it. Being four colors means it is difficult for your opponent to predict your sideboarding plans, so use this to your advantage; if Slaughter Games will be backbreaking, play it and be willing to mulligan aggressively for it.
In practice, this deck has performed surprisingly smoothly. It still has a tendency to run out of fuel, but ironically Liliana is the best non-combo part of the deck. She just sits there grinding advantage and removing answers every turn. I hope you'll go Gravecrawling, too!
The second list involves a very recent addition that I have seen go absolutely nowhere. The effect is interesting and has potential, but can we make it happen?
Casual players and Eternal combo players love this kind of card, much like Training Grounds, Doubling Season, and any similar reduction or copy effect. Well, they love it in theory. I have yet to see even a Timmy-tastic deck sport a single sleeved copy. So no EDH, no casual, no Eternal. Why would it ever work in the Limited card pool of Standard?
I looked through the collection of Standard creatures that this could equip. Some were neat and interesting. Ravnica's Guildmages courted the Bracers for a bit, as did damage output engines like Scalding Devils, and even Izzet Staticaster got into the action. However, one interaction particularly intrigued me.
Bear with me here. This Merfolk Looter has a special twist: he gets a "free" untap if a condition is met. In Civilized Scholar's case, discarding a creature untaps and flips him. If you equip him with Illusionist's Bracers and tap him, his ability will go on the stack twice. Normally, each creature card you discard from his looting ability causes him to transform into Homicidal Brute. However, if you copy this ability and, as each ability resolves you discard a creature, he'll untap, and transform for each ability. He'll transform into the Brute and then back into Civilized Scholar, where he'll be untapped again. That means you've basically cast Faithless Looting for free, and it is infinitely repeatable as long as you discard creatures.
Other intriguing interactions arose, such as Arbor Elf's ability being copied since it is not a mana ability. After careful review of all the best creatures in the format that could profitably wear the Bracers, I decided to pursue RUG, and here's the finished product.
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 3 Civilized Scholar
- 3 Galvanic Alchemist
- 4 Izzet Staticaster
- 2 Mercurial Chemister
- 3 Mindshrieker
- 2 Wolfbitten Captive
- 4 Zhur-Taa Druid
- 1 Krenko, Mob Boss
- 2 Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius
Eight mana dorks start us off. Arbor Elf provides great fixing and ramp as usual, and as stated earlier, Illusionist's Bracers can copy its targeted ability. Zhur-Taa Druid also provides ramp, but in congress with other cards we'll discuss in a minute, the Druid can outright kill your opponent over the course of a few turns. Beyond that, Izzet Staticaster can kill plenty of stuff when she's dealing two damage instead of one (or one damage each to two targets). She's one of the few creatures that has survived since the first draft of this deck in January. Civilized Scholar is our draw engine, if you will, and he does have the potential to block very well, even eating an Obzedat, Ghost Council if he needs to.
Galvanic Alchemist, a solid 1/4 blocker also provides the ability to untap any creature. Such abilities have excited Johnnies for decades, and that giddy feeling sure is present here. Every creature with a tap ability gets better when bonded to the Alchemist. Zhur-Taa Druid reads "1U: Deal one damage to each opponent," Izzet Staticaster can kill even tough creatures outright, and with all three Bracers and an Arbor Elf, you can create infinite mana (four ability resolutions versus three mana to untap). Yeah, that last one's a bit sketchy. I wanted three copies so there'd be plenty of Alchemist to go around! But remember to make sure you're familiar with the intricacies of the stack before trying this one at home, kids.
Mindshrieker is a favorite of mine from Innistrad; this long-forgotten Spirit Bird, which is an awesome type line, by the way, can activate effectively for one colorless mana instead of two. With lucky mills, it can go from a 1/1 to a scary/scary in a hustle, and it will be risky for your opponent to attack into it alone if you have any mana at all. Being able to copy the ability also helps justify the expense; even if you hit a land with one activation, maybe the other will hit something, and it will pump.
Similarly, Wolfbitten Captive, which suffers from a debilitation of "once per turn," gets better when you can copy the ability. A 1/1 can't usually become a 5/5, nor can a one-drop regularly become a 10/10. Because you'll often just be activating abilities each turn if there's no spell worth playing, the Captive will often be on the more powerful side.
The last few creatures are powerhouses meant to close the game out based on the advantage or power they bring. Mercurial Chemister, a card I still feel is strong enough in some hypothetical Standard metagame, can kill two creatures per turn or give you Tidings for U each turn. His boss, Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, can also deal two damage and draw two cards with Illusionist's Bracers while aiming at the face. He's also a 5/5 flying Dragon, for what that's worth.
The only singleton creature, Krenko, Mob Boss, interacts very well with all the tricks this deck offers. His first activation with the Bracers gives three Goblins since the ability checks the number of Goblins on resolution. His second activation provides twelve. Because Krenko's activation is free, Galvanic Alchemist lets you produce fifteen Goblin tokens in the blink of an eye.
Only nine spells make the cut this time, four of which are copies of Illusionist's Bracers. Four planeswalkers, two each of Ral Zarek and Domri Rade, were last-minute additions. Ral Zarek and Zhur-Taa Druid are the crucial pieces that Dragon's Maze delivered to seal this deck up. His free untap is highly relevant, providing multiple effective activations each turn for whichever tapper you wish as well as providing ramp and land reuse for this mana-hungry deck.
Domri Rade seemed correct with 27 creatures, and his emblem seems like a fun goal, allowing each creature safety from targeted spells and providing them same-turn activations. Free Arbor Elves! A single Ranger's Path provides higher-powered fixing than Farseek to help round out possible color issues while giving Arbor Elf each color it needs to get the job done.
The land base is standard for an Arbor Elf base: a couple basic Forests and all the usual dual lands. One Alchemist's Refuge eventually got cut because I never used it for its ability. It's just not as good without instants in the deck, of which there are none here.
The spell base should rarely change, so Simic Charms come in over planeswalkers in removal-heavy matchups, but otherwise it's creature for creature. Deathrite Shaman, the undisputed king of Standard-legal activated abilities, can hit two creatures a turn, giving you a nice life boost and depriving a Reanimator deck two options. One of Deathrite Shaman's flaws it is sometimes too slow to effectively answer every target of reanimation, so this helps a lot. Silklash Spider doesn't need its Hurricane ability copied, really. It's awesome and just happened to fit the theme, so sue me.
Clone? Well, Clone just always seems relevant. For legendary decks, Clone is a great answer, though if you haven't read about it yet, they are changing the way the legendary rule works. Make sure to read up on it if you haven't already. Until then, this will kill Geist of Saint Traft, Olivia Voldaren, and any other problem legend while also offering the option to copy the best creature. Kessig Wolf Run is a great finisher for the long game; if you're fighting a sweeper-heavy deck and/or a deck that extends into the late game, you need every threat, even flimsy 0/1s, to present a threat. Untap the Wolf Run with Ral Zarek to use it to defensively pump your defender, too!
Daybreak Ranger is a really great removal spell with Illusionist's Bracers. On the front, it can pick off a Restoration Angel, and on the back, it can either two for one if done correctly or can kill a high-toughness creature very well. She's very utilitarian, but if flyers or mid-sized creatures are giving you problems, look no further. Finally, Ruric Thar, the Unbowed made it in on a bit of a whim. I wanted to try him out because he's seen next to zero play despite being exceedingly powerful. He's an auto-side against any high spell-count deck, as resolving him will put your opponent in a very uncomfortable position.
No doubt this deck is a bit more casual/durdly than Gravengeance, but I hope that one or both tickle your fancy for a local event. Both should be practically crafted for those kinds of environments. Looking across the breadth of Standard can be daunting, but just remember that with every new card, an old card gets a new friend.
With the release of Modern Masters coming up next week, I'll be bringing you two Modern combo decks I've been fiddling with for the last few months. Be sure to join me, and until then, don't forget your untap activations!
- Matt H
CaptainShapiro on Magic Online