Anybody remember this little guy?
Nether Spirit's a sweet card. He's an inexorable kill condition if you're willing to 1) keep it from getting exiled and 2) willing to jump through the deckbuilding hoops necessary to keep it popping into play. During its days in Standard, that started with casting it, generally speaking, but could include discarding or Millstone'ing or whatever.
Reid's deck features two copies of Nether Spirit, with the mutual discard effects to let him break symmetry on cards and also save the cost of casting Nether Spirit. With manlands and Cursed Scroll to help chip in the damage against a destabilized opponent, he can certainly win if both Nether Spirits go to the bin. Of course, he's actually got a Spinning Darkness to let him solve even that scenario in a pinch.
However, Ali pushed a few different buttons. He squished in half of a Lands deck, basically, with Entomb allowing him to summon Nether Spirit as early as his second upkeep and Volrath's Stronghold allowing him to run a Vampire Hexmage and threaten Dark Depths turn after turn via Life from the Loam. There are a few other cool things afoot in this decklist, but they're not why I'm here.
This deck was frankly awesome, and I won't waste much time talking about it when Kennen himself wrote an excellent article about the deck himself.
Obviously, there are some throughlines with what Ali began happening in this deck. This is a Loam deck more focused on winning through attrition than through lockdown. Most people think infinite Maze of Iths and Rishadan Ports alongside Wastelands when they hear "Lands," but Kennen's deck leaned on a midrange gameplan that was closer to Ali's deck while still accessing the full range of Loam's power, especially in conjunction with Faithless Looting. He won through advantageous exchanges, not strategic superiority.
Now, this was just to get you a little taste of how to properly Nether your Spirits. I wouldn't suggest playing these decks right now, although I could believe a retooled version of Ali's or Kennen's deck could have some kind of legs. Frankly, playing Hymn, Smallpox, and Liliana of the Veil in the world of Treasure Cruise just sounds completely silly. People are entering their cleanup steps more often than dying on zero lands by an incredible margin. Mana denial just isn't good enough to be your primary plan anymore.
However, I have recently played some decks that included mana denial as a component of their overall strategy--a strategy that has consistently felt close, but just not right.
Yep, trying this one again. Considering how much I love Entomb and how much I don't love Standstill, this is very much a salmon-in-my-peanut-butter scenario. The issues with the Standstill deck have been frustrating, because they feel so fixable--really, it mostly boils down to me wishing I didn't have to play many of the cards. For example:
1) My Spell Pierce and Stifle-filled deck has a lot of air in it once I actually stick Standstill, making "draw three cards" not as dominating as I'd hope.
3) Aether Vial decks, specifically Death & Taxes, can be tough to fend off for a variety of reasons.
4) The clock isn't mana-efficient, making it often anemic as I'm divided between holding open mana for interaction and committing it to the offensive.
Nether Spirit, it occurred to me, could help supplement several of these issues. It's an incredible card against Tarmogoyf decks, sort of countering one and providing a clock in the big man's absence. Turn 1 Entomb Nether Spirit, turn 2 Standstill is an aggressive opening that many opponents who like to spend turn 1 on things like Ponder or Monastery Swiftspear won't be pleased to see.
Plus, with the primary tactic against Standstill involving sending the caster to cleanup, binning Spirit is a nice way to leverage opposing play patterns!
Black also offers me a wider range of removal spells than "damage that," including such gems as Innocent Blood for True-Name Nemesis and Massacre for white decks. One of the cards that most impressed Gerry and I during our testing of black decks prior to the Season Four Invitational was actually Darkblast, to the point that he was considering running a pair in Shardless Sultai as a way to ensure he could always "topdeck a Bolt" while helping him to fuel Treasure Cruises. Against so many decks, Darkblast really is that good! As I'm already planning to Entomb for my Spirits, it's a nice upgrade that's not as inferior to Bolt as you might imagine on many boards.
Now, there are certainly sacrifices. Adding Nether Spirit will mean reducing the creature count, which was previously some Snapcaster Mages and a True-Name Nemesis. Frankly, I won't miss Snapcaster Mage--Nether Spirit is a much better offensive accomplice, and Snapcaster was pretty mana-inefficient already. The biggest thing he did was provide a two-for-one that would "inspire" my opponents to Pyroblast and add volume to my quantity of removal.
Of course, as I've pointed out, all of that removal traded evenly on its own or not at all, depending upon the threat I needed to kill. Being able to burn the dome is good value, make no mistake, but I'm not convinced it's necessary. I think adding Entomb for Spirit and Darkblast essentially breaks ahead here, while allowing me to use slots on spells that answer tougher ranges. I can main Engineered Explosives, allowing me to use a slot on a spell that "sort of" kills an opposing turn 1 play, "sort of" functions as a sweeper, and isn't Lava Spike in the Miracles matchup.
Ironically, switching black for red even with the loss of Snapcaster Mage is still a big downgrade against Deathrite Shaman. Fortunately, Deathrite Shaman himself is pretty mediocre opposite Standstill in general, and his popularity is at an all-time low. That said, I'm going to consider answers as I explore how to sideboard.
Before I chat sideboard ideas, though, let's get a general list to work from.
This is a first draft, but I like a lot of what I'm seeing.
The singleton True-Name remains, as a way to fight through Punishing Fire and just in general provide a stern clock. I loved the one main, one board I played previously, and I doubt it's a significant conflict with Nether Spirit thanks to my Treasure Cruises being able to exile the True-Name, or my deck simply being able to not care and win with the manlands.
Speaking of Cruise, I'm only running two because I've also decided to try Life from the Loam. Loam helps threat volume, but in reality the only reason I am playing it is to give myself a third good card to Entomb. See, I really want to play three or four Entombs, but outside of Nether Spirit and Darkblast, I'm really lacking in cards worth Entombing. Bloodghast, Cabal Therapy, Lingering Souls, even Deep Analysis were all considered… but ultimately, Loam is the most sensible route to take because Stifle, Wasteland, Loam back Wasteland can lock up a lot of games. I'm being a little risque with just one Tropical Island, but I don't want to play a second, and frankly, I can't imagine I'll lose many games because my Tropical got Wastelanded after I cast Life from the Loam anyway.
I mean, who would assume I don't have two?
I'd really like to add a Swamp, and likely will if the Academy Ruins doesn't prove its mettle. The biggest selling point for Swamp is obviously a black source that can't get Wasted against Death & Taxes/Maverick, a land that works through Choke, and a land that enables me to potentially use Explosives against a resolved Blood Moon. Meanwhile, Ruins is solid against Elves, Miracles, and Young Pyromancer decks. The latter certainly covers a more worthwhile slice of the metagame pie, but it'll take some playtesting to tell. I could "Why not both?" and go to 25 lands, but frankly the deck plays a little land-heavy already, albeit color-light, and adding non-blue lands won't help those two problems. The Loam's Tropical Island may also go for that reason.
Oboro, Palace in the Clouds was an answer to Choke I played in Portland that was essentially free with the added upside of permitting me to occasionally access double or triple blue on important turns. I really liked it, as casting Counterspell was frankly a real trial at times. It's very possible that Darkslick Shores is the stronger card in this shell, an option that has no parallel in U/R. My suspicion is that Oboro will quickly depart, but I figured I'd stick with what I knew in the lands and spells considering the level of experimentation going on.
I may try an additional land once I know if I'm playing Gitaxian Probe or what is actually occupying those slots. Right now, they're essentially placeholders, but with Spell Pierce in absentia I wanted a way to know what kind of fight I was getting into when it came to upcoming Standstills and Treasure Cruises. I'm still debating the viability of Cabal Therapy in this shell, but it would be silly to run Therapy without Probe, right? The only way I see the deck making that kind of room is to cut Stifle or permission, which I'm not yet prepared to consider as that's a totally different deck.
1) Turn 1 or 2 Sensei's Divining Top
2) Turn 1 or 2 Green Sun's Zenith
3) Turn 1 or 2 Aether Vial
4) To help resolve turn 3 Standstill
5) Against combo decks
Countering a random cantrip isn't "good" for the record, although I'd say over half of my Spell Pierces died on that hill. Certainly it can be game-winning, but it's essentially just the last stop on the value bus.
Two of those situations would often involve my opponent already having created a threat, weakening Pierce substantially on the draw as I'd be stuck answering rather than maintaining the initiative. Countering Top is actually worse than it sounds, as only three cards in the Miracles deck have text in the matchup (Counterbalance, Jace, and Entreat the Angels) and Miracles can easily play to blank a Pierce if they put their mind to it. They'll also certainly draw another Top at some point, and surprise! Pierce won't counter that one.
It's good against combo, but I don't think it's a major factor given the deck's slow clock and ability to consistently find Force of Wills. What's more, it's replaceable in this role.
But yeah, Spell Pierce was good at resolving Standstill on turn 3. Given my deck wants to do that a lot, it's fair to say that alone merits consideration. I agree with you; those Probes might just be better served as Pierces. That said, I'd like to explore the other options before being forced back onto Pierce, as it was in a dead heat for highest-variance card in U/R Standstill (tied with Stifle). If Probe isn't worthwhile then I'll probably try Dazes, maybe even a suite that includes a singleton Misdirection--who knows.
The logic on reducing Spell Snare is that my deck now has Explosives as an answer to Counterbalance, Darkblast as an answer to Young Pyromancer, and Nether Spirit as an answer to Tarmogoyf, making many of these problems actually easier to solve, not harder. Overall, I'd like less conditional countermagic because it's the easiest angle to exploit against Standstill once cards start getting drawn--you just play to blank the majority of them.
I didn't include a sideboard above, and that's because the options are daunting! For example, I'm currently considering these "generally playable" cards:
Then there are some packages...
Oh, how I love to hybridize. The Reanimate route is probably not worthwhile, as you don't want your Entombs to be the centerpiece of the deck but function wildly differently, as you can only draw so many; I'd rather play them for value. The Loam engine is thus more promising, it's just also a much less threatening weapon.
Once I've got a specific idea of how the maindeck works, I'll get right on building a sideboard. For that, however, I'll need some local Legacy events to help me tweak the formula. As this week has been reserved for holiday celebrations in Florida, I won't have time to put in more than my theorycrafting this week, but I'm definitely interested to see if NetherStill has any potential!