Do you hear that? They are calling me...
It feels like Modern Masters was released little more than a week ago and already M14 is fast approaching.
Of course, this is primarily due to Modern Masters being released little more than a week ago and M14 dropping this time next month.
While Modern Masters' story is not over yet, it seems prudent to wait until after the biggest Magic tournament of all-time (the Modern Masters Grand Prix in Las Vegas) to tell the tale in full. By Saturday night, there were already more people preregistered than have ever played in a single tournament, smashing Grand Prix Charlotte's record of 2672 (which smashed the previous record by hundreds!).
Grand Prix Las Vegas has already eclipsed a mere Magic tournament, proving itself a cultural phenomenon. While many large GPs ended up leading players to not want to come because of them being too large, GP Vegas has successfully reached a point where more (a lot more) people want to come to be a part of history—to be a part of the largest Magic event ever held.
Interestingly, this is going to be the greatest test of the fifteen-round cap rule. What is it going to look like when tiebreakers are as savage and decisive as they will be in Vegas?
The good news: as long as there are under 4,000 players, a record of 13-1-1 should be a lock for Top 8!
The bad news: most 12-3s will not cash.
Grand Prix Las Vegas isn't about the money, the invitations, or the Pro Points. It's the first GP Vegas in over a decade, it's the beginning of summer, and it's the only Modern Masters event. It is also the biggest Magic event of all-time and is only going to snowball harder.
In the meantime, M14 is quickly approaching. Today, I'd like to take a look at one of the more interesting cards revealed thus far.
One of the fundamental rules of Magic is that you can only play with up to four copies of a given nonland card. Relentless Rats broke that rule and was wildly popular as a result, albeit as a casual card and a "meta"-game. Of course, Relentless Rats had a serious drawback in that its casting cost of three made more awkward early turns of a game. If your deck is full of Relentless Rats, what are you doing on turns 1 and 2? Then, after turn 3, you are just doing the same thing every turn. It's about as boring as activating a Pack Rat.
Shadowborn Apostle is the new "unlimited" card and presents some very different puzzles than Relentless Rats. For starters, the card costs just one. This means your first several turns are actually quite efficient. While Relentless Rats just begat more Relentless Rats, Shadowborn Apostle is actually just the beginning. Assemble half a dozen and the game takes on a very different texture. It's not even just the same endgame every time. There are actually quite a number of Demons that you might want to find depending on the board.
In Standard, Griselbrand has to be the gold Standard for best Demon to put into play if only because it is widely considered one of the absolute best creatures in all of Magic to cheat into play (up there with Emrakul, the Aeon's Torn; Progenitus; and Iona, Shield of Emeria).
What else might we want? Well, if we have access to Griselbrand, we are generally going to be looking for tutor targets for when Griselbrand isn't what we want. This means we are looking for Demons that create a novel effect.
We also have to decide how all-in we are. The more Shadowborn Apostles we play, the more likely we are to unleash a Demon turn 4. However, we are going to have to waste two or three mana by turn 4 anyway if we hit our land drops, so what if we spent that mana on something to impact the board?
Let's start with the stripped down, bare bones build and then look at what can be done to jazz it up.
It doesn't get much more stripped down than this! Assuming Griselbrand is the Demon we usually want, two copies is a lot safer than one. The Apostle can't find Demons in your hand, so if you draw one it's nice to have a second one to find (though this may prove unnecessary). The other two Demons are situational bullets for games where a mere Griselbrand is not enough. Sire of Insanity is pretty obvious, as sometimes all you really want is a Mind Twist. You can try to power through a Supreme Verdict, but that might be pretty annoying.
I originally was going to play a copy of the new Shadowborn Reaper from M14 as a way to kill a problem creature, but Reaper from the Abyss seems better for the job. Sacrificing all those Apostles ensures morbid will trigger, and the Reaper has a bigger body, plus you might get to trigger him again by way of chump blocking with more Apostles.
Playing half Shadowborn Apostles would give us just a 36.5% chance of having six by turn 4 (on the play). By increasing our Apostle count to 37, we up our odds to 68.7%. We may even want to consider pushing this by cutting one of the Demons.
Why play so little land? Well, we only really want to draw two lands! As long as we play a second land on turn 2, we can go:
Turn 1: Swamp, Apostle.
Turn 2: Swamp, Apostle, Apostle.
Turn 3: Apostle, Apostle.
Turn 4: Apostle, activate!
We generally want to minimize the risk of flooding since drawing even four lands means it takes just one Demon for us to have not enough Apostles to "go off." With nineteen lands, we are still 79.6% to hit at least two land by turn 2. Why accept a 31.3% failure rate on a turn 4 Demon but only a 20.4% failure rate on two lands by turn 2?
At least if we hit two lands by turn 2 we can still play a turn 5 Demon if we draw our sixth Apostle a turn late. If we miss our second land drop, the odds that we actually play a Demon turn five are pretty slim. That said, if we determine that a turn 5 Demon isn't fast enough, we might decide to cut the nineteenth land and just maximize the chances of the turn 4. The Cavern of Souls are questionable, but as long as we draw a single Swamp, we are good to go. They can force Apostles through in strange scenarios, but they are also a "backup" plan of sorts, letting us eventually force Demons through (though with so few land this might be a pipe dream).
Either way, having the mana fail 20% of the time and the primary engine fail 30% of the time suggests this is not likely to be a realistic tier 1 deck. It would be one thing if this was really a Belcher-like combo deck that just auto-wins against most people (when it gets a good draw). A turn 4 Griselbrand is quite good, but it can be beaten. Additionally, any removal can be very disruptive to the Shadowborn Apostle plan.
Are we supposed to slow the deck down? Add cards like Mutilate? That is one way to go, but the question I would ask is "why?" At some point, you could just Unburial Rites Griselbrand if that's what you're into.
Interestingly, we may want to consider running a larger-than-60-card deck! If we decide that we really do want four Demons but want to reduce the chances of drawing them, we can just play more Swamps and more Apostles. For instance:
This build actually has a 76% chance of hitting four Apostles by turn 4! How much does this impact the mana consistency? Not actually that much. This is among the most homogeneous decks ever made, and doubling the size drops our two lands by turn 2 odds down just a single percentage point to 78.6%.
So where do you draw the line?
Notice that this time I slightly upped the mana count to try to combat the inherent increase in mana consistency from a larger deck size. With this build, we are up to 77.4% to hit six Apostles by turn 4 and back up to 79.6% to have two lands by turn 2. How far can we take this?
This version has a 78.4% chance of hitting six Apostles by turn 4 and 79.7% chance of hitting two lands by turn 2! In theory, you could actually go a little bigger, but we are already squarely into the space of being extremely difficult to randomize in three minutes. Even if you could actually hold a deck this size in your hands, you would be expected to riffle it somewhere around 60 times to "sufficiently" randomize it, though you might be able to get away with less depending on what clarification WotC hands down (this has never really come up before).
Given that even a very proficient shuffler would be hard pressed to shuffle more than a quarter of the deck at once, we are looking at around 240 operations. Even if you can keep up a shuffle a second, you are not gonna make it in three minutes, and your opponent has no obligation to grant you a shortcut in this area.
It's up to the head judge how much leeway you might be able to get in terms of help shuffling it. After all, even just a single judge helping and I think you could actually pull it off. Of course, the judge may want you to demonstrate that you can actually do it on your own at all, in which case, you may need to practice shuffling in hyper speed and playing with the biggest deck you can actually shuffle in three minutes. A 400-card deck should be good with 36 riffles or so, which you might be able to do in three stacks, for a total of barely over 100 operations, which is certainly doable in three minutes. The good news is that the deck is so homogeneous that it will likely appear random to anyone that ever looks at it. The real issue is making sure that the head judge agrees that your technique sufficiently randomized the deck.
This is an interesting set of deckbuilding challenges to be sure. I think is probably the first time a deck's optimal size is bound by its pilot's physical ability to shuffle it legally. Obviously, acquiring 444 Shadowborn Apostles is not exactly trivial, either.
The first time I designed a deck anywhere close to this big was Pro Tour Rome back in 1998. It was a Mono-Red Aggro deck designed to be over 600 cards because most of the Academy decks people played were completely not capable of generating enough mana to Stroke of Genius someone out with that big of a deck. Play against anything besides combo? Then just try to grind out a very mediocre aggro plan. In the end, we did not bother building the deck, as we believed the majority of opponents would not play Stroke of Genius decks, assembling the actual cards for the deck would be close to impossible on short notice, and we did not believe we were capable of shuffling the deck sufficiently. And that is just what it would take to get the deck to place where it was safe to even test!
Of course, there are more ways to abuse "unlimited" than just casting the maximum number of them. Relentless Rats had a couple of exploits that might be applicable to Shadowborn Apostle. First of all, if you Memoricide or Surgical Extraction yourself for Shadowborn Apostles, you can make your deck much thinner. If most of the rest of your cards form a game-winning combo, you could be pretty likely to assemble it.
Unfortunately, the only Extraction in Standard is Slaughter Games, which can only target opponents. This pushes this squarely into the realm of Modern, but at that point is what you are doing as good as just playing a bunch of Splinter Twins and Deceiver Exarchs?
Another more exotic direction is to combine an unlimited card with Thrumming Stone.
Here we have two game plans. We can try to just play a quick Demon, often finding Griselbrand. Although this is the most straightforward, it is probably actually the backup plan, as we are a dog to be able to assemble a Demon reliably by turn 4. The more exciting approach is to drop a Thrumming Stone and then untap and cast a Shadowborn Apostle. Once you start rippling, you are 92.6% to hit keep going. As soon as you hit two Apostles at the same time, you are very likely to play every single Apostle in your deck. Sacrifice six and find a Rune-Scarred Demon, which then finds Grapeshot (with the storm count safely above twenty).
Molten Slagheap is to help get up to enough mana to cast Thrumming Stone without playing a ton of land. Drawing one means you can actually cast a Thrumming Stone on turn 4 (often with an extra mana, which would let you put every Shadowborn Apostle into play if you wanted to give up the Grapeshot Kill and just go beatdown). We might actually want to add more Dreadship Reefs, as these lands also give us the backup plan of just casting our fatties.
While the Standard Demon deck listed above is merely "not tier 1," this build is probably squarely in "not competitive." However, that doesn't mean it couldn't be with the right new technology and tuning. The point is to understand this new avenue of deckbuilding that is possible (which is valuable to do whenever a new card breaks a fundamental rule of the game). Most of the time, crazy new strategies that defy deckbuilding conventions don't end up good, but occasionally they revolutionize the way we play Magic (like Dredge, Miracle Grow, Quick'n'Toast, and Hypergenesis).
One final approach to Shadowborn Apostle is to combine it with Immortal Servitude. Immortal Servitude makes us want to have a lot of creatures in our graveyard with the same cost, and ideally that cost is as low as possible. Shadowborn Apostle is a perfect fit on both accounts! Outside of the possibility of dredging into half a dozen Apostles being easier than just drawing them, we also gain a powerful tool for combating removal.
With this build, you will have to look at around eighteen cards in order to have seen enough Shadowborn Apostles to "go off." Every Grisly Salvage is five more looks. Every Forbidden Alchemy is four more. You don't need to actually mill eighteen cards, though, since you will draw a fair number of Shadowborn Apostles naturally. By turn 4 on the play, you will have looked at ten cards naturally. Add in a Grisly Salvage and a Forbidden Alchemy and you are likely there. Of course, this approach doesn't actually have any other sweet cards yet. You have a lot of dig, but nothing to dig to yet.
Will Shadowborn Apostle completely take over Magic the way Dredge did? Unlikely, and honestly, it would be even less healthy for Magic if it did. However, it does have chances of hitting that Battle of Wits space where despite how bizarre it makes deckbuilding, it can hit people by surprise and actually win tournaments. These lists are certainly just the first stabs and may look embarrassing compared to the lists people eventually generate, but they are a first step down this dark path.
Who are we to not answer the call...?