Building with Wicker #3: Elements of Wicker Man Decks
Last week, we considered the foundations of Wicker Man deck theory. Before proceeding, it might be helpful to review some of the major points of the previous article.
To begin with, we mastered the obvious by stating that Aggro, Combo, and Control decks all work at their highest levels when matched against decks that do not interfere with their win conditions. Simply, Goblins wins most easily when there are no opposing blockers, Mind's Desire prefers that its Chrome Mox is not destroyed, and MWC has a field day when it is able to forget about Wrath of God and can start attacking with Exalted Angel on turn 4. The reason for this is that Aggro, Combo, and Control all run primarily on proactive win conditions. The perfect game for decks of these archetypes will be similar to a goldfishing session; only win conditions - the essence of decks - will matter.
Unfortunately, real world Magic tournaments are generally far removed from goldfishing sessions. Decks with low threat-counts (like MWC) are viable precisely because most tournament competitors will be good players playing good decks that are impossible for opposing decks to simply ignore. Although Ravager Affinity and Goblins both goldfish better if they do not run Shatter, the fact that these decks must face off against equally well-prepared decks means that they are often driven to dilute their win conditions with targeted removal spells. Even though Shatter makes Goblins a better deck within the metagame, it makes Goblins essentially worse. That is to say, even if MWC loses all of its Damping Matrices to Shatter, the addition of Damping Matrix to MWC has, nonetheless, succeeded in distracting Aggro decks from playing straight Aggro.
However, one deck's ability to distract another deck from its win condition is not limited to Control. Damping Matrix would never have found a place in MWC to begin with had Goblins and Ravager Affinity not forced its presence. In as much as Damping Matrix prevents MWC from casting a turn 3 morphed Exalted Angel, the Aggro decks have succeeded in distracting MWC. From this, we can garner a general rule: The more a metagame develops, the worse (or more diluted) Aggro, Combo, and Control decks essentially become.
Wicker Man deck theory attempts to create decks that, unlike those of the major archetypes, function best when opposing decks function best. This can be achieved through reliance on retroactive threats as one's primary win condition. While Goblins, Proteus Belcher, and U/W Control all work best when able to ignore their opponents (a situation that occurs only rarely), a Wicker Man deck seeks to win games as a direct result of opponents' actions.
One of the central goals of Wicker Man decks is dilemma creation. Retroactive threats wrench opponents out of the goldfishing mindset by forcing them to choose between either leaving their own threats unplayed or risking punishment for playing them. For example, against MWC, having two Rotlung Reanimators in play ensures that Wrath of God helps rather than harms you. However, if the MWC player shies from playing Wrath of God out of fear of zombie tokens, she will eventually lose due to damage from the Rotlung Reanimators themselves.
Not Just a Metagame Deck
Most Wicker Man decks are highly metagame dependent. Even a deck focused on Underworld Dreams (and honestly, if you are going to bother playing Underworld Dreams, you had better focus on it) will function considerably better in a metagame in which card drawing spells are common. Nevertheless, not all metagame decks are Wicker Man decks.
In today's Standard, R/G Land Destruction enjoys some popularity and has been fitted out to combat a field rife with artifacts. While it is true that cards like Viridian Shaman and Molder Slug function as both artifact destruction and threats, neither punish opponents for their actions. Molder Slug is a fine creature, but far from creating dilemmas for a Ravager Affinity opponent, it forces the opponent into one of two courses of action: Either the Ravager Affinity player must remove Molder Slug (almost always for less mana than it cost to cast the beast), or she must try to win before Molder Slug takes control of the game. Usually, these courses of action are mutually exclusive; if the Ravager Affinity player is holding Terror, she will destroy Molder Slug, and if she cannot destroy the beast, she will ignore Molder Slug as best she can and go for the quick kill. This is exactly the kind of decision-making a Wicker Man deck seeks to avoid.
A recent example of how Wicker Man deck theory has seeped into tournament play is the presence of Disciple of the Vault in Clerics decks running very few artifacts. Here, Disciple of the Vault is made to negate one of Ravager Affinity's win conditions. In the Clerics v. Ravager Affinity matchup, the Affinity player has to go to all the trouble of setting up a pseudo-combo kill only to discover that the Clerics player has been preparing for her own win condition and can take advantage of Affinity's exertions. Over all, however, Clerics is not a Wicker Man deck, if only because Disciple of the Vault is a secondary (and exceedingly narrow) win condition.
Wicker Decks are Greater than the Sum of their Wicker Parts
In order to illustrate some of the principals of Wicker Man deck theory, we will examine two very similar decks from different time periods.
One of the best historical examples of Wicker Man deck theory in action was the Tempest-fuelled RecSur deck that made use of the synergy of Survival of the Fittest, Recurring Nightmare, and Living Death. Of these three cards, only the latter is, in itself, clearly a Wicker Man spell. The other two spells were not inherently Wicker Man cards, but were, nonetheless, key to RecSur's essentially Wicker Man strategy.
Early RecSur builds took inspiration from Stupid Green and abused Vision's card advantage generating creatures (Uktabi Orangutan, Wall of Blossoms, and Nekrataal) by replacing the potent-but-fragile Stampeding Wildebeests with the efficient and difficult to remove Recurring Nightmare. Survival of the Fittest both tutored for creatures and fed Recurring Nightmare. Later, RecSur would gain access to Urza Block creatures (Academy Rector, Monk Idealist, Ghitu Slinger, Avalanche Riders, Deranged Hermit) and become even more powerful and toolbox-oriented.
RecSur's Wicker Man status derived from its basic premise: Whether its creatures were in the deck, in hand, in play, or in the graveyard, they presented a danger. If Nekrataal were put into play, it would destroy a creature; once in play, it could attack to deal damage; and if it were in the graveyard, it could be resurrected by, say, a sacrificed Academy Rector. Opponents of RecSur players were made to choose their own methods of torture. Oftentimes, it appeared better not to destroy a creature and to just let it eat away at one's life total. And of course, the mere possibility that a RecSur opponent could be holding Living Death (a combination of Wrath of God and All Hallow's Eve) made playing one's own threats while destroying RecSur's creatures incredibly dangerous. Wicker Man decks like RecSur generate card advantage by making it harmful for opponents to play the cards that they have drawn. Whereas the retroactive Wrath of God creates card advantage but does not punish opponents outright, Wicker Man cards do both.
Below is Brian Selden's 1998 World Championship RecSur deck:
4 Wall of Blossoms
4 Birds of Paradise
2 Wall of Roots
2 Uktabi Orangutan
2 Spike Feeder
1 Spike Weaver
1 Verdant Force
1 Thrull Surgeon
1 Spirit of the Night
1 Cloudchaser Eagle
1 Tradewind Rider
1 Orcish Settler
Here, Living Death is conspicuously absent. In a Wicker Man sense, RecSur had one great failing: It was too good. However well the deck could take advantage of opposing creature removal, it was also a monster at goldfishing and could always just play the Reanimator game with Verdant Force and Spirit of the Night. The Survival of the Fittest/Recurring Nightmare synergy was quickly recognized, and as the deck gained popularity and became"the deck to beat," it necessarily lost its Wicker Man status. What, after all, was the good of playing Living Death if one's opponent has spent the entire early game stuffing her graveyard with comes-into-play creatures? However, the influence of RecSur on Wicker Man-type decks was to be a lasting one.
Today's B/G Cemetery owes more to RecSur than commonly realized. In order to simplify matters, we will be using Richard Feldman's recently posted decklist as a starting point for discussion. Although not all of Feldman's card choices are irrefutable, we shall, to a point, defer to his expertise as he has done considerable testing and, rather uniquely, given in-depth reasoning for his decisions. The decklist is below:
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Wirewood Herald
4 Bane of the Living
3 Viridian Shaman
2 Withered Wretch
1 Elf Replica
17 Non-Creature Spells
4 Death Cloud
3 Oversold Cemetery
3 Dark Banishing
It is interesting to note how the workhorse enchantments of RecSur are replicated in B/G Cemetery; Oversold Cemetery is, clearly, a weakened version of Recurring Nightmare whereas Skullclamp acts as a watered-down Survival of the Fittest. Nekrataal, Uktabi Orangutan/Viridian Shaman, and Monk Realist/Elf Replica also make appearances. Missing from Feldman's build are the commonly run Caller of the Claw (Living Death modified for MWC) and Ravenous Baloth (Spike Feeder).
Even if B/G Cemetery unarguably wields less power than RecSur, it fits more securely within Wicker Man deck theory. Oversold Cemetery's one point of superiority over Recurring Nightmare is its ability to create dilemmas. Facing a board of Oversold Cemetery, a Viridian Shaman (Skullclamped or not), and three creatures in the graveyard, an MWC opponent will realize that removing the Viridian Shaman is not necessarily the best option, as this will bring online Oversold Cemetery and its varied threats. Like the best of dilemmas, however, this is an illusory one, one over which the B/G Cemetery player holds ultimate control. Death Cloud and Skullclamp can both be used to activate one's own Oversold Cemetery if necessary.
The opponent is stuck making difficult choices, yet if she should make the wrong choice (that is, not removing the Viridian Shaman and allowing it to gradually deplete her life total), the B/G Cemetery player can make corrections anyway. This brings us back to Wicker Man deck theory's the psychological advantages: Although it almost always best for an Aggro player to break an opposing Standstill, the manifest disadvantages of doing so will sometimes prevent her from casting spells. Nevertheless, the Control player needs the Standstill broken eventually and can, when the time comes, suck it up and make a move.
Unlike many other B/G Cemetery theorists, Richard Feldman takes another Wicker Man route as well, this time concerning the proper use of Skullclamp. Though decks like Ravager Affinity and Goblins (not so much builds running Patriarch's Bidding) typically use Skullclamp purely for card drawing, Feldman points out its usefulness as a dilemma creator. Weak though a single Viridian Shaman may be, if it attacks often enough and goes unblocked, it will eventually win a game. When equipped with Skullclamp, that puny 2/2 suddenly gains an extra point of toughness and, more importantly, becomes very difficult to justify blocking. Aggro decks that typically have no trouble stopping 3/1 attackers are in a fix, particularly if an Oversold Cemetery is waiting around to spit the Viridian Shaman back into the B/G Cemetery player's hand next turn. It is worth mentioning, however, that Skullclamp best serves a Wicker Man purpose when placed on a blocker as this represents a form of retroactive threat creation. Correctly viewed, Skullclamp allows the B/G Cemetery to gain card advantage when attacked.
Part of what this teaches us is that even if many decks have Wicker Man possibilities (Ravager Affinity can, certainly, equip Frogmite with Skullclamp and keep it back for blocking), at times, play-style and strategy are as important as the individual cards involved. While it is usually incorrect for a Goblins player to not attack with a Skullclamped Goblin Piledriver, it is advisable (in the early- and mid-games at least) for a B/G Cemetery player to save a Skullclamped Withered Wretch for blocking. Similarly, the previously investigated RecSur decks could work as either Aggro or Wicker Man (with the easy inclusion of Living Death) decks depending on the fancy of the player.
In response to the last article, a number of additional points and questions were raised in the forums. Hopefully, we can clarify them.
Is Congregate a Wicker Man Card?
Luckily, the answer to this is an easy one: No. Whatever the merits of life gain, it usually constitutes neither card advantage nor an offensive threat. As Wicker Man deck theory focuses on retroactive threat creation, a pure life gain spell like Congregate is quickly discounted. Additionally, we can see that cards like Congregate and Soul Warden also fail to create dilemmas. Although they both punish opponents for playing threats, they do not cause opponents to play threats any differently; which is to say, they do not create dilemmas. If a Goblins player hopes to kill you, she is forced to ignore the threat of Congregate because, simply, if she does not cast her creatures, she cannot kill you anyway.
Is Shared Fate a Wicker Man Card?
This one is slightly more complex. Although Shared Fate is, in itself, clearly a Wicker Man card, we would do well to remember that Wicker Man cards do not exist in isolation. The only kind of deck in which Shared Fate could conceivably be played would be a deck that completely lacks threats. Once cast, Shared Fate turns a Shared Fate deck into a Wicker Man deck, but prior to the enchantment's entering play, the deck actually functions in a manner totally at odds with Wicker Man deck theory. If your opponent knows that you are playing a Shared Fate deck, she has no dilemma at all; it is obvious that she must kill you quickly before you can hijack her deck. This leads to the goldfishing approach to playing, exactly what Wicker Man decks attempt to prevent. The same can be said for such cards as Confusion in the Ranks and Grip of Chaos.
Is Grim Reminder a Wicker Man Card?
The trouble with Grim Reminder is that, if you are to use it well, you will often be forced to play the same deck as your opponent (only with the addition of Grim Reminder). Unless your opponent happens to be playing a Wicker Man deck (and once a Wicker Man deck takes control of a metagame, it ceases to be a Wicker Man deck), your own deck will fall outside of Wicker Man Deck theory. Since, however, we do not, at the moment, concern ourselves with asking whether particular Wicker Man cards are playable but only whether they fit within our theory, we can confidently state that, like Shared Fate, Grim Reminder is, in itself, a Wicker Man card. Unlike Shared Fate though, a Wicker Man deck based around Grim Reminder is conceivable. It ought to be noted, however, that, unlike most other Wicker Man decks, a devoted Grim Reminder deck would absolutely crumble in the face of the worst rogue decks at a tournament.
Wicker Man deck theory does not limit itself to creating decks that punish good play; it is also our intention to punish good decks for being good. With this in mind, punishing predictability and consistency is an appropriate role for a Wicker Man deck to take. The very fact that Wicker Man decks are typically metagame-dependent is a sign that predictability is, in fact, related to ability. If we assume that good players are going to play the best decks, then predicting the best deck in the metagame is the first step to building a threatening Wicker Man response. It is for this reason that, in some environments (for example, a Control-heavy metagame), cards like Bribery can serve Wicker Man functions.
Is Reiver Demon a Wicker Man Card?
Here, we are troubled by conflicting definitions. Though Reiver Demon (like many other comes-into-play creatures such as Nekrataal, Viridian Shaman, and Noxious Ghoul) is surely both a response to opponents' actions and a threat, it is not, for our purposes, a retroactive threat. However powerful these cards may be, they do not punish opponents for their plays or create dilemmas. In all of these examples, the threat is not directly related to the response but merely tacked onto it. If your opponent knows that you are running Reiver Demon, she may well play differently than she would otherwise, but this comes about not so much as a result of the threat Reiver Demon poses (a 6/6 flying creature) than as a result of its mass destruction effect.
In itself, Reiver Demon (like the other creatures mentioned) acts as a catalyst for goldfishing; when it is known that you have methods of destroying your opponent's permanents, your opponent will be sure to try to get as much use out of those permanents as possible. This is not to say that comes-into-play creatures do not compliment Wicker Man strategies (often, as we have seen with RecSur and B/G Cemetery, Wicker Man strategies live and die on the basis of card advantage), only that they are frequently not, in themselves, Wicker Man cards.
Can we Really Classify Decks by their Win Conditions?
David Chapman is to be thanked for bringing this issue to our attention. Previously, we have attempted to categorize decks on the basis of how they win; by this reasoning, Goblins is Aggro because it wins by incrementally damaging an opponent, Proteus Belcher is Combo because it wins suddenly, MWC is a Control/Aggro hybrid because it wins incrementally, and Psychatog is a Control/Combo hybrid because it wins suddenly. However, in Chapman's words,"Strategy has nothing to do with how the win conditions work, and everything to do with how the whole deck works. A Raffinity deck doesn't become a control deck if it runs Mana Leaks ant Shatters in the main, after all." While this reasoning is, to an extent, true, it does not hold when decks are viewed at their base level.
The essence of a deck is its win condition. Ravager Affinity plays Shatter not because the deck, in itself, needs Shatter but because other decks have succeeding in distracting it from its win condition, have managed to make it impossible for Ravager Affinity to ignore opponents. Unfortunately for Ravager Affinity, its win condition is achieved the fastest when the deck can ignore its opponents. The issue here is not that Ravager Affinity becomes a Control deck by running Shatter but, rather, that Ravager Affinity has been essentially diluted by its addition. On the other hand, Wicker Man players aim to, whenever possible, distract opponents. It is the goal of the Wicker Man player to stop opponents from goldfishing into wins. A Wicker Man deck differs from Aggro, Combo, and Control in that its win condition is reactive. Even though Chapman is correct in saying that it is not always reasonable to classify decks by their win conditions, this categorization is necessary in any discussion of Wicker Man deck theory.
Over the past two articles, we have set out the fundamentals of Wicker Man deck theory:
1) Wicker Man decks' primary win conditions are retroactive.
2) Wicker Man decks seek to create dilemmas and distract opponents from their win conditions.
3) Wicker Man decks are usually metagame dependent.
4) Wicker Man decks are determined as much by play-style and strategy as they are by card choices.
In order to make use of Wicker Man deck theory, we are obliged to examine the metagame. The first question a Wicker Man deck theorist must ask is"What are the strengths of the dominant decks in the metagame?" This is the opposite of the method of Aggro, Combo, and Control, archetypes whose theorists must ask,"What are the weaknesses of the dominant decks in the metagame?"
If the best deck in the metagame is MWC, a Wicker Man deck theorist might decide that retroactive threats such as Caller of the Claw and Rotlung Reanimator, which work against Wrath of God, are the best routes to victory. An Aggro theorist, however, might find MWC's early-game weakness and seek to exploit it by constructing a deck that wins quickly. Both of these methods of deck building are acceptable, yet assuming that the Wicker Man and Aggro decks are equally powerful, it is the former which will hold an advantage against good opponents playing good decks.
This has merely been an introduction to Wicker Man deck theory. Though the theory's strategies are as old as Magic itself, we have explored new territory simply by creating basic rules for Wicker Man deck construction. As our investigations have been primarily theoretical up to this point, we cannot claim perfect knowledge of the field and must allow our rules to be flexible. As with so many aspects of Magic, further advancement in Wicker Man deck theory requires one thing: More playtesting.