"Spoilers have begun! It's Christmas every day!"
Don't get too excited now. Think about baseball if you have to. I don't really get too amped up for spoilers these days. In fact, I have gone multiple sets without even glancing at a new card before the official visual spoiler was released by Wizards of the Coast. You can't complete a puzzle without all the pieces. The context makes so much of a difference—especially when talking about linear strategies—that a spoiled card in a vacuum means very little to me. With only a third of the set available to us, we have to take everything we see with a grain of salt. Bah humbug.
All of that being said, there is a spoiled card that has piqued my interest. It's a card of which we've seen numerous variations over the years. Without further ado, I give you the latest member of the Howling Mine family:
Before we get to our new shiny toy, we should first take a walk down memory lane. History repeats itself and so on, not to mention that this way the article will stand on its own as relevant Magic theory instead of being just another spoiler article. It will also apply to all future Howling Mine functional reprints, which saves me the effort of having to write the same article again.
Howling Through History
Howling Mine is one of the most iconic cards in all of Magic: The Gathering. It first appeared at the very beginning of the game in Alpha and was reprinted in every subsequent core set even beyond the transition from numbering to dating them, appearing in Tenth Edition and then Magic 2010 before being retired. That's an impressive streak, and it even got an encore appearance in Commander due to its global popularity among multiplayer groups.
But it's not just a casual card to gain political brownie points in multiplayer games. Howling Mine has made the transition to competitive play on more than one occasion and to reasonable success. At the very start and before competitive Magic was at all refined, Zak Dolan won the first ever World Championship all the way back in 1994. In his near Highlander deck, we can see a single copy of our good friend Howling Mine.
A couple of years later in 1996 when Magic was beginning to mature, Mark Justice made the Top 8 of the very first Pro Tour ever held with a nearly mono-red control deck with splashes of white and green that used Winter Orb with Icy Manipulator to shut opponents out of games. You see, it used to be that all the abilities of such artifacts would turn off if the artifact were tapped. So in addition to being able to just Icy Manipulator down the one land they untap under a Winter Orb, you could also use it to tap your Winter Orb on their turn, allowing you to untap all of your lands (and the Winter Orb so it continues to apply for your opponent).
Later that year Matt Place and Mike Long placed third and fourth respectively in US Nationals with a deck that used a similar idea of locking out the opponent but this time with the thought to be junk rare Stasis. Once again we see Howling Mine playing the role of draw engine in a prison-esque control deck.
After that Howling Mine was relegated to the fringes, appearing as a card of interest in thought experiments such as Eric Kesselman's version of How to Keep an Idiot Busy. It would be a full ten years (!) before we saw Howling Mine on the Sunday stage once again. Tiago Chan of Snapcaster Mage fame made the Top 4 of Pro Tour Honolulu in 2006 (aka "That PT with the Craig Jones Lightning Helix") with a deck based around Howling Mine.
The late great Itaru Ishida, who played Owling Mine at that Pro Tour as well (hitting the bad side of variance with the glass cannon strategy), modified the deck by combining it with the Magnivore archetype that was popular at the time. He played it as a member of the legendary team Limit Break in a Constructed Trios Grand Prix to a Top 4 finish, one of his impressive seventeen career trips to the elimination bracket.
After that Howling Mine was once again relegated to the fringes of formats, though it showed up on those fringes with relative frequency. There were multiple Turbo Fog variants over the years that utilized Howling Mine, and a Sanity Grinding Turbo Mill deck used it as well. One of the coolest and most competitive uses came from Finnish Nationals, where Mikko Airaksinen took it down with a Time Sieve deck where Howling Mine really shone:
The deck saw competitive play for much of that season, being considered top tier or damn near it for a good percentage of that. Harkening back to the Owling Mine days, Runeflare Trap was printed in a format so ripe with Howling Mine variants that Ryan Reynolds had to shave copies of Jace Beleren in his PTQ-winning deck!
And players are still trying! Owling Mine was ported to Modern, though one would be hard pressed to call it competitive (check out the sweet anti-aggro sideboard tech!). I've even tried my hand at it, toying with a Time Walk combo deck to decent results that looked something like this:
It seems Modern is just a bit too fast and powerful of a format for Howling Mine. And we haven't had one in Standard in a while. Now that we're getting one, it's time to take a look and see what we can do with it. In order to know what to do with it, though, we first need to understand it.
The pure card count of Howling Mine can be daunting at first. You're investing a down payment of a card by casting the Mine, and then your opponent draws off of it first. This means that you are down two full cards to start. On your own turn you recover one of those cards, only to fall back again on theirs. In short, you're going to be down two cards half of the time and one card half of the time, so you can shortcut it as being down one and a half cards. That's assuming the Howling Mine survives since if it's killed before you get the turn back, you'll just be down the exchange, having essentially two-for-oned yourself.
This is a hefty investment to make and serious risk to undertake, so you have to be sure that the payoff will be worthwhile to overcome that.
There are a couple of ways to manipulate the economics surrounding your Howling Mine to make it a profitable endeavor despite the seemingly major downsides.
The first is to ensure the game goes long. As you both draw more and more cards, the material advantage you gave your opponent will become diluted. If the total card count is higher, then the percentage you're down will be much lower. This only serves to mitigate the initial card loss and hopefully will allow you the time to take advantage of the way that you presumably set your deck up to function in lush card-rich games.
The next step is to utilize the snowball effect by building your deck in a way in which your extra cards scale well and theirs don't. That is to say they have diminishing returns while your returns are ever increasing. The added power of your cards combined and how much better they match up against your opponents' is what makes up for that initial disparity and gives you a winning position from your early gambit.
Making Your Mines Work For You
As you can see, Howling Mine is not a card to be used straight up. You need to use and abuse it. How you exploit it is the difference between Howling Mine being a casual multiplayer card and it being a cornerstone of a competitive deck. I'm going to list some ways in which one could take advantage of a Howling Mine being in play. Look for these motifs in the decklists from the history section above.
Break The Symmetry
A classic way of taking advantage of the symmetrical effect of Howling Mine is to make it not so symmetrical. Back in the day, the abilities of artifacts would only apply if the artifact were untapped, as discussed above. This means that you could tap your Howling Mine with your Icy Manipulator on your own turn and deny your opponent the extra card, thus creating your own pain-free Phyrexian Arena. This rule was changed with what is essentially the birth of Magic as we know it today, the Sixth Edition Rules Change in 1999. One would think this meant that just like Winter Orb Howling Mine could no longer be [icy] manipulated this way. However, the Sixth Edition iteration of Howling Mine actually included the "if Howling Mine is untapped" intervening "if" clause! The card received errata to maintain its intended functionality.
Not that it matters all that much nowadays, as there aren't many Icy Manipulator running around in Constructed anymore (though Antoine Ruel's Owling Mine build did have Gigadrowse). It is just one example of breaking the symmetry of Howling Mine and a fun little history lesson.
Another way to break the symmetry of both players drawing an extra card on each of their turns is to take more turns than them. Simple enough.
A common way to take advantage of both players having a surplus of cards is to make it so that you're the only one who gets to use them. By attacking their ability to cast their spells, you create an imbalance in resources that will snowball. The steady stream of extra cards you receive will ensure that you can stay on top of them while also continuing to develop by hitting land drops and playing more Mines to bury them. From that point actually killing them is incidental.
By choking their ability to deploy their hand, you make their effective card count much lower than their actual material.
Go Over The Top
One way to profit from Howling Mine is to simply do bigger and better things than your opponent. If your cards are much higher impact and exchange much more efficiently than theirs, then you can come out ahead by going over the top.
Take the simple example of playing a "big" control deck fueled by Howling Mine against a creature-based aggressive deck. Your first Supreme Verdict kills three creatures. You probably gain a slight mana advantage and are down a decent amount of life on the exchange, but you've overcome the initial deficit caused by your Howling Mine.
And now for the rest of the game you get to draw Supreme Verdict, Sphinx's Revelation, planeswalkers, cheap counters, and removal spells. Meanwhile, your opponent gets to draw a whole bunch of creatures. Your cards are just so much higher impact that you can pull ahead by strides when both of you are flush and just continue to exchange profitably until they are completely buried.
Go Around The Side
If you're able to approach from an angle that is wildly different than your opponent, you can blank a large percentage of their deck, giving you massive virtual card advantage. If they aren't prepared to fight on the axis on which you are operating, then it's unlikely they will be able to interact with you effectively no matter how many cards you let them see. An example of this would be to use Primeval Bounty against a Mono-Black Devotion deck or Maze's End against just about anyone.
Go Effing Kill Them
You can do this either by punishing them for having so many cards in their hand (how dare they?) with Sudden Impact or by assembling a combo kill of your own with all your bonus cards. It doesn't matter that they were up one and a half cards or that you allowed them develop perfectly if they're dead.
A Special Jace Case
You may not envision Howling Mine fitting into an aggro-control tempo-oriented deck all that well. That feels like it falls under the "straight up" category that we're trying to avoid. While this is true, it's also not a hard and fast rule. The thing to look for is how well your cards stack, meaning how well they scale in conjunction with one another. Sam Black discussing Jace Beleren in Faeries in this 2010 article says it better than I could:
"At some point, which happened to be exactly round 3 of Worlds 2008, I realized how good Jace Beleren is in Faeries and never really looked back. When I first saw Jace appear in some lists from Japanese Block Constructed GPs, I didn't really get it. It was only when I played against it in the mirror and saw how powerful the +2 ability was that I finally understood. In Standard a Howling Mine that functionally cantrips for one extra mana would almost be good enough by itself because Faeries scale up in power level with additional Faeries better than other decks, and this means that you are much better equipped to take advantage of extra cards than the opponent. The fact that Jace almost always ends up granting some actual card advantage eventually just makes it amazing."
Save the final sentence, this type of scaling was mentioned in regard to snowballing in the Artificial Economics section, but I felt this form of the concept deserved a dedicated section. It's an interesting idea of how to use Howling Mine that isn't quite any of the principles already discussed but rather bridges parts of multiple of them into a unique little box.
If you can scale that steeply and interact dynamically, then you can actually find value in Howling Mine inside of an aggro-control shell with tempo orientation. Awesome.
Now let's take another look at Dictate of Kruphix:
How does this card compare with Howling Mine (besides having functionally identical text)? What is unique about it?
So you have to play blue in your Howling Mine deck? Not exactly the steepest of opportunity costs . . .
The third mana tacked on is certainly a substantial negative, but there are significant positives as well. So that's hardly enough to discount it by any means, not to mention that three-mana variants have seen Constructed play in the past in the form of Temple Bell and Jace Beleren (yes, I know Jace isn't "just" a Howling Mine, but it has been used as a Howling Mine in decks and did so at the price of three mana).
Normally, one would see 1UU as a drawback, "strictly worse" and just harder to cast than 2U if they wanted to make it blue. However, if you are playing a deck in which this effect is good, you are almost certainly already heavy enough in blue that the difference between 1UU and 2U in regard to castability is largely negligible. However, 1UU has the hidden benefit over 2U in the form of aiding your devotion to blue. Two devotion that can't be Hero's Downfalled is not insignificant.
As discussed, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when trying to operate with Howling Mine is the hole you dig yourself into to get it up and running. With the ability to cast it on their turn, it hits you first. This means that you are at card parity on your turn and down a card on theirs. This is a full card's difference from before.
But that's not the only benefit of flash. You also get to hold open mana in case you need it for something other than casting Dictate of Kruphix. Conveniently enough, exactly Dissolve mana. If they play something you need to counter, counter it. If not, run out the Dictate. Even if you don't have a counter, it gives you the added utility of being able to delay having to take an action until you have more information and can better assess your options. If they play a Stormbreath Dragon, you can kill it before it hits you, but if they just lay Polukranos, World Eater, then you can Dictate, take the turn back, and Supreme Verdict. Maybe they play a Vraska the Unseen, so now you can choose not to cast Dictate until you can find a Detention Sphere for the planeswalker. And so on.
It also makes deciphering your hand in the mid to late game a lot more difficult for your opponent. They may pass the turn back into your six open mana expecting you to either do nothing or Sphinx's Revelation for three, but instead you cast Dictate and still have Dissolve up. This type of deception has a lot of intrinsic value for this style of deck that operates largely at instant speed, such as Faeries or U/W Flash. It makes playing against you extremely difficult. Even on turn 3 your opponent may make a different play while operating under the assumption that you are another deck entirely, only to see Dictate flashed in on end step.
Flash is good at information wars. Revolutionary, I know.
Building With Dictate Of Kruphix
I have a few ideas, but none are quite fleshed out (nor should they be until we know the full set), but I'm willing to share my notepad document of potential shells. Before I do, let me introduce you to another Journey into Nyx card that you should be aware of if we're talking about Howling Mine:
This card acts as a Temple Bell with summoning sickness and an activation cost, but it's for only a single mana and comes with the ability to deny the opponent their card at the cost of your own. Dakra Mystic is awesome, and it's a shame that the massive amounts of creature kill in the format will splash damage it so severely.
The first and coolest shell has to be in a blue and black deck that allows for this sequence:
End step Dictate of Kruphix.
Untap, draw an extra card, fourth land, Notion Thief.
Notion Thief is already great against Sphinx's Revelation decks, and now you have a reason to force the issue. I've wanted to use Notion Thief with Whispering Madness for quite some time anyway, and this may be the time and place. Note that Dakra Mystic doesn't put the revealed cards into their owners' hands; you draw them. Here is a proposed build that uses the new card Disciple of Deceit to have a toolbox in this UB control deck. The card you have to invest into the Disciple itself will hopefully be mitigated by the Dictate of Kruphix and allow you to assemble the perfect responses to whatever your opponent is doing. I originally had a one-of Mutavault and a couple of colors of Temples to search for, but Disciple says non-land.
There is obviously going to be a Turbo Fog deck that uses Dictate, but the problem is that the Fog deck of the format as it stands would be Maze's End, which can't exactly make very good use of a Howling Mine, let alone one that costs double blue. There may be a Bant Control deck such as the one that Todd Anderson proposed in his brewing article last week, which he then played in his Versus Video this week where he and Brad discussed the concept and came to the U/W Control deck that Brad put the prototype list for in his Q&A article last week. It diverges from Turbo Fog and focuses more on the whole "higher impact" approach.
I wonder if there is a way to build the deck as dedicated Turbo Fog with Aetherize, Frost Breath, Sudden Storm, and maybe even Whelming Wave. Things like Riot Control and Druid's Deliverance don't protect planeswalkers, and the value they generate outside of Fogging is less useful to me than the tempo generated by the aforementioned blue options. Plus unless you really felt you needed Fog proper and Kiora, the Crashing Wave, you could cut down on colors or change your splash for something else.
As for combo shells, the most obvious is simply mill. Something that is extremely appealing to me is getting through a large portion of someone's deck and then casting Crypt Incursion and gaining an obscene amount of life to buy the necessary time to finish them off. Dakra Mystic also plays real nice in this type of deck; it's too bad it's so squishy and lightning rod-esque. The question is whether or not there are enough actual kill cards. Traumatize is legal, and Breaking // Entering is legit. Jace, Memory Adept is expensive and vulnerable but effective.
After that, though, the drop-off is steep. Unless you can find a way to create loops of some kind, you're left Tome Scouring people, which I admit may work, but I also have my doubts. Paranoid Delusions is even worse but does fit nicely on a Dakra Mystic, though you are still unlikely to get more than a single hit in (if that). Dimir Charm has some added utility but is super low impact in regard to milling, though I will admit that it interacts humorously with the Temples, as you can see what they put to the top (aka what they need) and can then deny them that card and make your decision on what to leave them based on that information!
You could play a slightly slower game with some removal, maybe Codex Shredder (which is also funny against scry as well as against Courser of Kruphix or with it for that matter) and then Psychic Strike and Pilfered Plans to nickel and dime them out. This seems worse than any of the true control decks sadly. I will say that Psychic Spiral seems very abusable, and I would not be surprised if the easiest way to mill them out was to mill yourself. Time to break out Chronic Flooding!
There may be a way to go with a creature-oriented mill deck using Phenax, God of Deception, but playing a bunch of creatures kind of defeats the purpose of trying to kill the opponent through other means, as you are turning back on all the removal you were trying to blank.
One really cool way to go over the top that I first saw used by Frank Lepore is to overload a Cyclonic Rift and then untap and Reap Intellect them to shreds. It costs a lot of mana but is pretty awesome with Dictate of Kruphix.
There may be a traditional Counter-Burn deck now that we have access to Temple of Epiphany, though it's more likely we see a traditional U/W/R Control deck that uses Dictate as a draw engine. Better mana and access to Thoughtseize has made Esper Control the more popular choice, but with the added Temple and the ability to better combat Thoughtseize, we may see a resurgence, as you can play a game of running the opponent out of threats in control mirrors when you're the one with Counterflux.
As for Time Walk variants, we don't have access to much in Standard at the moment. There's Medomai the Ageless, Expensive, Slow, and Fragile. Search the City for playables and end up empty handed. Ral Zarek is the only remotely playable of those but is still hardly reliable for Time Walking purposes. Finally, we have Sage of Hours coming from Journey into Nyx, which takes some serious setup and is still fragile and doesn't stack with each other. This is a card I want to brew with anyway though with things like Give // Take; the new Ajani, Mentor of Heroes; and maybe Bioshift with other heroic creatures or evolvers.
And that's only the beginning of the discussion of potential homes for Dictate of Kruphix. Where do you see it fitting in best? Do you think it can find a place in Modern? What about Block Constructed? After all, that is the format of the Pro Tour coming up!
Recap & Conclusion
The principles for utilizing Howling Mine variants are as follows. Use one or more:
- Ensure the game goes long to dilute the material you give up and to get the chance to enact your game plan.
- Break the symmetry of it by turning it off or by taking extra turns.
- Deny your opponent access to their own cards by attacking their ability to use them (usually through attacking their mana).
- Go over the top with cards that are higher impact and exchange at a profitable rate.
- Attack from a different angle so as to blank a large percentage of their cards.
- Combo kill them before they get a chance to maximize on their extra cards.
- Have your cards scale well and use them together to regain your edge and then snowball that advantage and bury them.
A huge part of the appeal of Dictate of Kruphix for me is how it allows control decks to take on this whole new face. Turbo-Wrath.dec. You just get to a certain point where they're drawing their weird support cards but you're still hitting all high-impact spells. And even in the early game, it helps you get out from under a Thoughtseize, a mulligan, or a combination. Probably most importantly, it can help you make your land drops without having to tap out in your main phase for a Divination or Jace, Architect of Thought, just like how the U/W Flash decks had Think Twice, Thought Scour, Azorius Charm, and Snapcaster Mage.
I may not be big into spoilers, but I am genuinely excited to see what Dictate of Kruphix can do and what else Journey into Nyx gives us to work with.