There are three Innistrad cards and three different deck concepts that I've been focusing on the weeks leading up to States, and so far none of them have hit the broader online radar despite one large new Standard tournament in the books the past weekend. I have to say I'm a bit torn about the timing of Magic things this year leading up to States/Champs. For years, States was the Wild West of Magic, featuring a crazy and unexplored format that had been dramatically shaken up by set rotation, losing a bunch of old proven staples while simultaneously adding a new large expansion set unexplored and bursting with possibility. It was a time when being willing to innovate and daring to try new things could really pay off big time.
This year, States is coming in the wake of two StarCityGames.com Opens featuring the new Standard, and through that competitive crucible we're going into States with a pretty strong idea of what decks many people are going to play. Many of those decks are going to be very strong and battle-tested, which will naturally diminish the effectiveness of newer and rawer strategies. The window for discovering that exciting and effective rogue strategy is still there, but it's starting to close… and that just feels wrong somehow before we've even had States.
On the plus side, a more defined metagame gives us a better gauntlet to test our ideas through and a better idea of what sideboards to construct. Before, I'd roll the dice and choose which cool new concept I liked best and roll with it—sometimes I'd choose the first Dredge deck or good Lotus Cobra deck and win with it; sometimes I'd go too far on the ledge and fall off into the side events bracket.
So you see the mixed feelings…
SCHOOZE ME WHILE I WHIP THIS OUT
The first deck concept began when I heard about a funky combo involving Necrotic Ooze. If you've been reading me since States last year, you know how much I like Necrotic Ooze. Unfortunately for Necrotic Ooze, there haven't been any super-powerful activated abilities to copy in Standard since it was printed. Sure, there's been a handful of interesting ones here and there, but the closest I was able to get to something worthwhile were the Souleaters from New Phyrexia, but their effectiveness was limited by what life you had to spend once you assembled your super-Ooze.
Anyway, about a month or so back I heard that someone was brewing a deck where you'd get a single copy of Mirror-Mad Phantasm in the graveyard along with Necrotic Ooze and Laboratory Maniac in play. The Ooze would activate the Phantasm's ability to shuffle back into your library and then mill your deck until you found a copy of Mirror-Mad Phantasm. Since there was no Mirror-Mad Phantasm left in your deck, you'd mill yourself out and then when you went to draw a card, the Maniac would win you the game.
Being a huge fan of Necrotic Ooze, I was intrigued by the idea, but I could see some pretty huge problems—namely, you were relying on a blue Gray Ogre staying in play to win the game, and if you didn't win, you very likely lost.
One solution to the problem was forcing yourself to draw a card on the spot or in response to someone killing the Maniac. Merfolk Looter was back in the Core set and was even an activated ability that could be copied by the Ooze. I started searching through Magic 2012 and Innistrad, looking at other activated abilities that might be helpful in my Ooze quest… and came upon Civilized Scholar.
At first blush, this looks like an additional Looter to dig deeper into the deck and add some redundancy. At three mana, it helps fill out the curve in case we go with Birthing Pod to help enable the combo (which didn't seem like a bad plan). But the Scholar ends up being so much more! I've played with Looters in the past, and they've been helpful cards to dig deeper into your library, stock your graveyard, and chump block.
Civilized Scholar does the same thing, but if it needs to chump block, if you transform it, you'll likely kill whatever it is you're blocking. That's pretty sweet! In a Birthing Pod deck, the Scholar can be cashed out for a four-drop or a one-drop—since its transformed state is considered to have a converted mana cost of zero. There are a couple one-ofs at one mana you wouldn't mind putting in a deck that you'd otherwise not typically be able to fetch out with Birthing Pod.
But the best part of Scholar is when Necrotic Ooze copies his ability. Necrotic Ooze can't transform, so when you tap him to loot, if you discard a creature, he just untaps and is ready to loot again (or block or attack or whatever). With enough creatures in hand when you start and enough creatures in your deck, this turns into a powerful engine for digging! You basically can keep going until you've got nothing but non-creatures in your hand. This will leave your graveyard full to bursting with creatures with an untapped Necrotic Ooze ready to take advantage of that. It's often thought that the best Magic decks do something “unfair,” and I think this engine qualifies.
So what's the best thing to do with this engine? That's what I've been wrestling with ever since I stumbled across it. I kept my eyes peeled for others talking about it, but other than forum chatter I couldn't find much out there.
A friend suggested using the turbo-loot to set up an infinite combo by having the Ooze copy Palladium Myr (taps for two mana), Grimgrin, Corpse-Born (sac a creature to untap and add a +1/+1 counter), and Pentavus (spend one mana to remove a +1/+1 counter to make a 1/1 creature). You end up setting an unbounded loop with an arbitrarily large amount of extra colorless mana left over along with an arbitrarily large number of creatures coming into play and dying. The best thing I could figure out to do with all that was the firebreathing ability from Steel Hellkite stapled onto Necrotic Ooze (and maybe trampling from Insatiable Souleater or Skinshifter), or Molten-Tail Masticore activations to the face (obviously not infinite, but you only need to do 5-6 times at the most).
While this combo was definitely powerful, it required running some pretty subpar cards in the deck. Grimgrin turned out to be a pretty good card, but Palladium Myr and Pentavus don't really hold their weight in competitive Standard battle. With Birthing Pod, I could actually minimize the space for the bad cards, but that certainly seemed to make the combo finish much less consistent. I'd get the Schooze combo online, dig and dig and dig, maybe activate Birthing Pod… and I'd usually end up one combo piece short of being able to win on the spot.
I kept my eyes peeled for other ideas, and then I ran across That Time of Year by Carsten Kotter here on StarCityGames.com. Carsten most often writes about Eternal formats, but he dipped his toe into Standard talking about a Birthing Pod deck featuring Necrotic Ooze and Civilized Scholar… sounds familiar! Carsten's decklist reminded me quite a bit of where I'd ended up with my list—basically a BUG Birthing Pod deck with Scholar/Ooze to kick it up a notch, utilizing new cards like Kessig Cagebreakers, Splinterfright, and Skaab Ruinator. But what really caught my eye was something he mentioned a few paragraphs down:
“One modification to think about here is to add a Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, a Bloodline Keeper, and a Skinshifter to the deck, giving you the ability to win on turn 4. If you manage to hit all of them looting with the Ooze, it turns into an arbitrarily large trampler and swings for the win immediately (assuming you have G available).”
Bloodline Keeper! Back when I was researching creatures with activated costs that Necrotic Ooze could copy, Bloodline Keeper hadn't been spoiled yet, and I totally missed it. While it doesn't give you infinite mana to play with, the tradeoff is that you can just use cards that are really good all on their own, but that when combined in the graveyard allow you to make your Ooze really huge. I'd already been considering Skinshifter alongside Spellskite as ways to protect your Ooze from removal (if hit with a Dismember, you can make the Ooze 0/8 to survive).
So, we have a powerful engine that does something unfair with good cards and a powerful combo finish that uses good cards, both revolving around Necrotic Ooze. Seems like a strong deck concept to build around to ambush an unprepared format, right?
The problem though is how to best build the deck. Do we drop the combo into a Birthing Pod deck as something that we can work towards but isn't really necessary to the win, or do we go all-in and maximize our chances to get the combo kill online as fast as possible?
Here are decklists for the two approaches for comparison:
- 3 Spellskite
- 1 Wurmcoil Engine
- 3 Acidic Slime
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Bloodline Keeper
- 4 Civilized Scholar
- 2 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Massacre Wurm
- 4 Necrotic Ooze
- 1 Phantasmal Image
- 1 Skaab Ruinator
- 3 Skinshifter
- 1 Splinterfright
- 1 Tree of Redemption
- 1 Viridian Emissary
- 1 Grimgrin, Corpse-Born
- 1 Sheoldred, Whispering One
It's got the utility of a typical Pod deck with some solid alternative plans to the combo finish—Skaab Ruinator, Splinterfright, and Sheoldred, Whispering One. A friend of mine pointed out that Tree of Redemption's ability could be used with your arbitrarily large Necrotic Ooze to gain you infinite life in case you can't crash in for the win.
There are obviously a lot of tweaks and angles you can work into this build. For instance, adding a Vector Asp and Molten-Tail Masticore lets you go to the face with poison damage—you can Pod a transformed Scholar to tutor up the Asp. Hex Parasite might not be a bad addition with planeswalkers being so prevalent in the metagame so far (Liliana of the Veil, Elspeth Tirel, Gideon Jura).
Here's the more focused approach:
This build uses Birthing Pod to supplement the Scholar/Ooze engine to assemble the combo pieces in the graveyard as soon as possible rather than its typical use as a tutor/utility engine. Another friend called Birthing Pod in this sort of build “Ooze Sun Zenith” because Ooze is what you'll dig for if you don't already have it.
As it stands, I'm not quite sure which the best approach is, but I do feel fairly confident that there's gotta be a potent Necrotic Ooze deck in here somewhere!
While this deck concept is my A-plan, if it doesn't turn out I've got two backup plans…
COOLEST DECK NAME EVER
First up is a deck that's real tempting to play simply because it's got one of the coolest decknames ever that is also descriptive of what the deck actually does. You may remember my column a few weeks back where I talked about fueling the awesome power of Heartless Summoning with Creeping Renaissance, and I've continued tinkering with the deck and stumbled across some improvements. Here's where it stands currently:
- 4 Perilous Myr
- 2 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 4 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Sylvok Replica
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 2 Massacre Wurm
- 2 Rune-Scarred Demon
- 3 Tree of Redemption
- 4 Viridian Emissary
- 3 Glissa, the Traitor
My original idea was using Heartless Summoning to cast artifact creatures for free or at a deep discount and reloading with Creeping Renaissance. Glissa, the Traitor was used to help reload and to combine Heartless Summoning with Perilous Myr to be a weenie-killing machinegun. Of course, focusing too heavily on artifact creatures limits some of the more powerful things you can pull off, so I loosened that up and made room for other things. Birthing Pod seems like a natural fit into this sort of strategy, and even though people will be prepared to deal with Birthing Pod, you've got ways to get it back in this build.
The big breakthrough here I believe is Tree of Redemption. Going mid- to late-game, this deck should grind out a pretty commanding board position, but living that long can be problematic, especially since Heartless Summoning makes any creatures you play more fragile. However, an 0/12 Tree is just as resilient as an 0/13 Tree, and coming down a full turn earlier can go a long way towards comfortably protecting your life total both before and after Tree activation. Even if your aggro opponent battles through that Tree activation and kills the Tree, you can reload with Renaissance for creatures.
I decided to replace two Renaissances with Rune-Scarred Demons; if you don't already have a Renaissance to reload, then you can fetch it with the Demon, but if you do have the Renaissance, then you can tutor up something more useful, even the second Demon. Remember, in this deck each Renaissance is like two slow-rolled Yawgmoth's Will, which is pretty insane if you think about it.
THE MIDDLE PATH
Last up is what I consider the “safe,” middle-of-the-road choice built around powerful weapons in green's arsenal. First up is Green Sun's Zenith, a card which was recently banned in Modern and that should serve as a wake-up call that this powerful card is still available to us in Standard. Green also has up to twelve one-drop mana creatures it can use to power out big Zeniths fast. In fact, the sequence of turn 1 Birds or Elves, turn 2 Zenith for two got me wondering what sort of two-drop do I want to search up? There are some pretty good options—Viridian Emissary is a great chump blocker for aggressive decks; Mayor of Avabruck is superb to tutor up against slower decks; and Skinshifter is a great “middle path” choice.
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Daybreak Ranger
- 4 Dungrove Elder
- 1 Kessig Cagebreakers
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Mayor of Avabruck
- 1 Primeval Titan
- 2 Skinshifter
- 1 Tree of Redemption
- 2 Viridian Emissary
- 1 Thrun, the Last Troll
Green Sun's Zenith gives us access to some great silver bullets further up the curve, like Thrun, the Last Troll and Tree of Redemption. Kessig Cagebreakers is also a great response if your opponent has cleared the board of your creatures. Best of all is being able to tutor up Primeval Titan, who can then fetch up a Mountain and Kessig Wolf Run. At that point, any creature you have is going to be pretty scary with firebreathing and trample, but I'm most excited to combine it with a gigantic Dungrove Elder!
So I'm curious—which deck concept do you like best for States? Long-time readers, which do you like best for me to play at States? I'd feel comfortable running any of these three, though I think the Ooze deck has the highest “cool” factor, and I'd love the buzz it would create if I were hovering at the top tables pulling off wins with that deck. In a big tournament, winning with style is obviously much better than simply winning… but then again, simply winning is much better than losing with style.
I've a week to make a decision, and any help or feedback you can give me is much appreciated!!
starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com
Make sure to follow my Twitter feed (@blairwitchgreen). I check it often so feel free to send me feedback, ideas, and random thoughts. I've also created a Facebook page where I'll be posting up deck ideas and will happily discuss Magic, life, or anything else you want to talk about!
I've started a blog, it's not Magic-related but you may find it fun to read and comment on. I update at least once a week so check on it often and let me know what you think! This week I got to do a guest-spot on a much more popular blog called Simply Solo, and that was pretty exciting—it drove quite a bit of traffic my way. I also recently revamped my blog header with a perfect drawing from the awesome MJ Scott, check it out!
New to Commander?
If you're just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:
- Commander Primer Part 1 (Why play Commander? Rules Overview, Picking your Commander)
- Commander Primer Part 2 (Mana Requirements, Randomness, Card Advantage)
- Commander Primer Part 3 (Power vs. Synergy, Griefing, Staples, Building a Doran Deck)
My current Commander decks (and links to decklists):
- Damia, Sage of Stone (Ice Cauldron shenanigans)
- Glissa Sunseeker (death to artifacts!)
- Glissa, the Traitor (undying artifacts!)
- Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer (replacing Brion Stoutarm in Mo' Myrs)
Previous Commander decks currently on hiatus:
- Thelon of Havenwood (Campfire Spores)
- Melira, Sylvok Outcast (combo killa)
- Konda, Lord of Eiganjo (The Indestructibles)
- Vorosh, the Hunter (proliferaTION)
- Progenitus (Fist of Suns and Bringers)
- Savra, Queen of the Golgari (Demons)
- Uril, the Miststalker (my “more competitive” deck)