This is a bittersweet article to write. It's Core Set 2019 preview season, otherwise known as my last ever chance to think about new Magic cards in the context of Winding Constrictor. It's almost a tradition at this point, writing an article about the new prospects for Constrictor strategies with each new set. But Core Set 2019 is the last set before the Standard rotation that will take Winding Constrictor away from us, so this Snake update article will be my last.
But in some ways this is a good thing. To be frank, Winding Constrictor isn't very good right now. There's exactly one build that is seeing success, and not very much of it.
- 4 Verdurous Gearhulk
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 2 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 4 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Winding Constrictor
- 2 Rishkar, Peema Renegade
Jeff Cunningham has been winning a lot online with very aggressive, Adventurous Impulse-centric builds of Snake like this, but that success has failed to translate to strong paper results for anyone. My take is that the deck is very close, but not quite good enough and needs a little bit of help. Let's take a look at what Core Set 2019 has to offer.
Ajani, Ally of Snakes
As is tradition, I'll start with the boldest of the new potential Snake friends:
Earlier this week, Matt Severa wrote a great piece about white aggro in the new Core Set 2019 world. As you might imagine, Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants featured heavily in his article. The card is obviously powerful and its focus on creatures gives it a clear aggressive bend. The card seems very likely to see a good deal of play during its time in Standard, and if you're at all interested in attacking with white creatures, I highly recommend checking out Matt's article.
I, of course, am about to take this new Ajani in a completely different direction. Cover up the top right corner of the card and you have a picture-perfect Winding Constrictor planeswalker. Ajani literally does everything I could ever want. After all, it's no secret that I thought Nissa, Voice of Zendikar was the best card in the Winding Constrictor decks of the last Standard rotation. And Nissa only had one ability that synergized with Constrictor, while Ajani has two.
Ajani's +1 ability compares favorably to Nissa's -2 ability. No, the word favorably in that last sentence wasn't a typo. Sure, Nissa's ability affected your whole team and Ajani's only gets two creatures. That is absolutely a downgrade, I won't deny it. However, Ajani's ability can be used every turn of the game that he's on the battlefield if you so desire. Chaining Nissa's minuses together took time and set-up, as you had to build-up the necessary loyalty. That's not a problem with Ajani and makes his ability to develop your battlefield more imposing than Nissa's.
But if Ajani's +1 was all he had, I wouldn't be this excited. That second ability of Ajani, the ability to rebuy a dead Winding Constrictor, is what has me in this frenzy. Look, I get it. Ways to put counters on your creatures are out there. We sure haven't played Oath of Ajani before. And there's also ways to rebuy your Winding Constrictor already. Claim is even a very mana efficient way to do so, but I haven't played that before either. These effects aren't novel, but we haven't had both on the same card before.
Ajani's ideal play patterns go so well in a Winding Constrictor deck. Most of the time, Ajani wants to be using his +1 ability. You make your creatures bigger, you threaten your ultimate, you make your battlefield more and more threatening. Using his -2 ability represents weakening your Ajani substantially. You are three turns further away from using his game-winning ultimate and his loyalty is reduced enough to make him vulnerable to attacks or burn spells. When you choose to use this ability, you really want the creature you return to the battlefield to have a dramatic impact, but there's not many creatures with converted mana cost two or less that have that effect in the late stages of the game. There's not many, but Winding Constrictor is one of the few.
And Ajani's -2 isn't just an extra Winding Constrictor, it's a zero mana Winding Constrictor. The current G/B Constrictor builds have access to a lot of copies of Winding Constrictor through Adventurous Impulse, but not any that cost zero mana. Getting a free Winding Constrictor is a huge deal, as it lets you sink all your mana into Constrictor synergies before your opponent gets an untap step. If you pick your spot correctly, it's very easy to use such a window to put the game away, whether the agent of the end is a Verdurous Gearhulk, a Rishkar, Peema Renegade, or just a Walking Ballista.
Hammering Out the Mana
So, Ajani's mana cost includes two white mana. Winding Constrictor requires black and green mana, which means we now need to play three colors. What do we do?
If Ajani only required a single white mana, I would be inclined to splash white for him as blue was splashed for Hadana's Climb in Sultai Constrictor, but that's not the world we live in. Instead, if we want to play both Ajani and Winding Constrictor, the most realistic course of action is to splash either green or black.
On one hand, this is a tad unfortunate. Winding Constrictor is the heart of the deck after all, and splashing for it isn't really what we want to be doing. On the other hand, turn two Winding Constrictor is often not the right play. Sure, we probably won't play Rishkar, Peema Renegade in our list since we're throwing away the chance to play Constrictor on two into Rishkar on three, but that start's a little worse these days than it used to be anyway. We lose a little of our free-win equity, but Ajani might be worth it.
So, the question becomes whether we should splash green or splash black. Because the deck wants to be very lean, I really want only Winding Constrictor to require our splash color and to play as few sources of it as we can get away with. Since we're doing this to play Ajani, I want to think about which color combination Ajani would prefer to be in.
Ajani is an aggressive planeswalker who can't defend himself in a traditional sense. Sure, you can technically block with the creature you bring back with the -2, but you really don't want to be using the -2 on the turn you play Ajani. The best play pattern is to use the +1 on two creatures when you play Ajani on turn four, which means we're playing a deck with a high creature count. To me, that means we're playing green and splashing black.
I'm excited to play mana creatures alongside Ajani. The traditional problem with mana creatures is that they fall off late in the game and become irrelevant, but Ajani is a great way to keep them relevant as the game progresses. On the play, you can even protect a turn one Llanowar Elves from a turn three Goblin Chainwhirler with Ajani, which is quite enticing.
Here's where I plan on starting with Abzan Constrictor with Core Set 2019:
- 2 Verdurous Gearhulk
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 2 Jadelight Ranger
- 3 Knight of Grace
- 2 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Servant of the Conduit
- 4 Winding Constrictor
- 2 Shalai, Voice of Plenty
Right off the bat: yes, playing only two copies of Llanowar Elves is weird. I have a lot of reasons for doing so, and I still think it looks weird. First, getting the mana base to have a truly proper number of untapped green sources to enable turn one Elves is impossible if you also want to be as heavy in white as I want to be. Second, eight mana creatures is a lot, and I think Servant of the Conduit is more important to the deck. Lastly, Llanowar Elves is a liability right now with all the Goblin Chainwhirlers running around.
Most of the rest of the decisions were made to highlight Ajani, Adversary to Tyrants. History of Benalia guarantees two creatures for Ajani on turn four, Knight of Grace complements History and provides an additional creature that is resistant to removal to help lock-in your battlefield presence in some matchups. I wanted four expensive Winding Constrictor synergy pieces to use after an Ajani -2 and chose to split Shalai, Voice of Plenty and Verdurous Gearhulk in this role.
Alternatively, Business As Usual
Look, I can't in good faith tell you that I am 100% certain that Abzan Constrictor will be the face of the Snake game going forward. I'm really excited about the power that Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants brings to Abzan Constrictor, but I can't guarantee that adding the extra color will be worth it. Determining that will take some time and some tournaments once the set comes out, and I could see it going either way.
So,in the meantime, it behooves us to explore all the angles and look at what we can do to improve G/B Constrictor with Core Set 2019.
The Adventurous Impulse build of G/B Constrictor has been far and away the most successful variant since the release of Dominaria, and that's good news for Graveyard Marshal. Don't misunderstand, I don't expect Graveyard Marshal to make it anywhere near the maindeck of Snake builds, but I think it's an exceptionally powerful option out of the sideboard.
Adventurous Impulse has done a lot of good for the G/B Constrictor deck, letting it effectively play more copies of its synergy pieces and utilize small bits of excess mana to gain access to some card selection that it never had access to in the past. This is great, but unfortunately, necessitates a hugely-creature centric approach that makes the deck a little one-dimensional. This is fine most of the time, but is a definite liability against control strategies.
To fight back against control, G/B Constrictor relies on Lifecrafter's Bestiary and Shapers' Sanctuary as ways to stay in a prolonged game where control can kill wave after wave of your creatures. The problem with them is that they are not creatures themselves and Adventurous Impulse isn't able to help you access them. Enter Graveyard Marshal.
The Marshal is my favorite kind of creature against control: a source of efficient early pressure that doubles as a must-answer threat in the mid- to lategame. If you cast this on turn two and get one or two attacks in, you're happy. If you cast it on turn five and make a Zombie, you're happy. If you cast it on turn eight and make two Zombies, you're ecstatic.
This is a creature that, once the game has exited the early stages, forces their hand. They can't afford to sit back and play the game they want to play, as you will do nothing but turn your dead creatures into Zombies until you win the game, which will happen in short order if they let your Graveyard Marshal exist unchecked for a couple of turn cycles.
As a source of continual pressure, Graveyard Marshal is worse than either Shapers' Sanctuary or Lifecrafter's Bestiary. It won't outright replace those cards in the G/B Constrictor sideboard, but it will supplement them. An army-in-a-card that can be found with Adventurous Impulse and that is as aggressive on turn two as any other creature in your deck cannot be overrated.
Next up is another sideboard card, but there's nothing wrong with a good sideboard card. To the contrary, good sideboards are what makes great decks excellent, and hyper-focused decks like the Adventurous Impulse G/B Constrictor lists are often hard-pressed to use their sideboard effectively while maintaining the laser focus of their maindeck. Spell effects on creatures are highly valuable to the archetype, and out of the sideboard, Reclamation Sage is a large upgrade to Thrashing Brontodon.
Thrashing Brontodon is an awesome card, but only if you're interested in the 3/4 body. Using Thrashing Brontodon as Naturalize is an expensive proposition, and you aren't getting anything for that extra mana you pay if you never attack or block with the card. This means that against decks like God-Pharaoh's Gift where you really need the Naturalize, your Brontodon is not really what you want.
A 3/4 is good against the red decks, but it's a lot better game one than in the sideboarded games, which limits Brontodon's effectiveness as a sideboard card. Further, it being a 3/4 is less relevant to G/B Constrictor than to any other deck that might play Thrashing Brontodon for the simple reason that G/B Constrictor already plays so many reasonable bodies that are reasonable against red decks. A few more doesn't really change anything.
Reclamation Sage, on the other hand, is excellent. It's a sorcery speed Naturalize that you pay one more mana for, but it's one that you can find with Adventurous Impulse and three mana is a whole lot less than four. Further, you get to keep the 2/1 body after you get rid of an artifact. Excellent against Seal Away, phenomenal against Heart of Kiran. If the format shapes up in a way that makes Naturalize effects desirable, Reclamation Sage will be the direction that G/B Constrictor wants to go.
On my first read, I did not much care for Hungering Hydra. Sure, it technically synergizes with Winding Constrictor, but none of its early modes are inspiring. A two mana 2/2 isn't a great deal, nor is a three mana 3/3 or a four mana 4/4. Protection from double blocks is fine, but much more relevant to Limited than Constructed.
Still, X spells often play a little better than they look because of how flexible they are. Being able to use Walking Ballista counters to grow the Hydra is a cute interaction and is extra damage if you have a Winding Constrictor on the battlefield. The threat of that interaction might force your opponent to actually block the Hydra, which is when the card actually starts to become threatening. These are all little bits of power, but they do add up. Still, I wasn't convinced that they added up into a card worth playing. And then, I thought of one final point:
Having a Hungering Hydra bigger than 1/1 actively punishes your opponent for playing Goblin Chainwhirler. Again, this isn't a huge thing on its own, but we're starting to have a lot of small positive interactions with this Hydra. Overall, I think the card has enough minor points in its favor that playing one or two to fill out the curve in spots sounds okay. Recent builds have played two copies of Merfolk Branchwalker, and I'd be interested in trying out a couple Hungering Hydra in those spots.
As sad as I am to see the final days of Winding Constrictor upon us, I'm still very interested in seeing how this final chapter unfolds. Core Set 2019 has presented us snake aficionados with one last puzzle, and I mean to solve it. Happy Snakeing, everyone.