Stealing a library for fun and profit


If you’ve visited this post to find out how one might steal the valuable contents of an actual Library (for instance the surviving relics of the famous Library of Alexandria), I am afraid I have to disappoint you. This is an article about the Magic the Gathering card game, not the plunder of priceless cultural heritage.

If you already knew that this article was about MTG, but wanted advice on how to steal a copy of the card Library of Alexandria, I’m afraid you will also be disappointed. Also, you are a terrible human being; seek help.

If you already understood the MTG connection, aren’t actually bent on larceny, plus you have always fantasized about repeatedly beating up on your opponents with their own resources, congratulations! You are in the right place.

Su casa es mi casa

It can be a tough life, brewing Magic Decks on a budget.

All around you, players with less drains on their disposable income are packing their decks with premium cards, while you are forced to build with scraps. All too often, you will run your eye down the length of your latest artwork and experience a sinking feeling, as you realise that it would be greatly improved by the addition of 4 Sphinx’s Revelation… a suite of cards from which you are separated by, at the time of writing, approximately $85.

Can you spare a brother 850 dimes?

If only there were a way to play with all the revelations, huntmasters and geists you desire, whilst still being able to pay your mortgage at the end of the month.

Well, happily, there is.

My new BFF

I’ve recently started ‘stepping out’ with a new man, doing all sorts of fun things like running through the surf of golden beaches hand-in-hand, or sharing one huge milkshake with two straws in a 50’s-style malt shop. His name is Nightveil. Let me introduce you.

NV, meet the guys. Guys, meet NV.

Nightveil and I have similar interests. We like MTG, cheesy romantic gestures and playing with cards from other people’s libraries.

We first met shortly before the start of the main Saturday Gatecrash prerelease in Glasgow, where a competitor from the midnight event pushed him across the table toward me with the words: “…this guy was insane every time I cast him.”

As I looked at him, I ran through an internal thought process which covered some of these key points:

  • The baseline power level for a playable creature has been creeping up in recent years.
  • This creature doesn’t have an obviously pushed power/toughness ratio for his mana cost.
  • He doesn’t have an ETB effect, so if he dies before he damages the opponent, I am left with nothing.
  • He’s apparently a specter, but he doesn’t get rid of cards from the opponent’s hand, just their library.
  • There’s no guarantee I can even cast the cards I exile. How is that good?

Luckily, the man making introductions wasn’t finished.

“He lets you play any of the cards you exile,” he continued enthusiastically, “Including lands! So if you can protect him for a few turns, you end up getting the right colour of mana to play the other guy’s spells just by naturally stealing his manabase.”

Inside my skull, a correction began to unfold.

  • If I can naturally play lands from the opponent’s deck…
  • …and most decks are close to 50% lands…
  • …this creature will, on balance, be drawing me a card every two turns.

Drawing additional land is certainly the kind of thing I’d want to be doing in a control deck, where consistent mana development is key. Perhaps NV did have some fringe uses, I began to think.

  • If I can hit lands over the course of a few turns, I might start to turn on the opponent’s spells too…
  • …which would start to drive the value of his ability closer and closer to ‘Draw a Card’…
  • …as well as providing a one card mill, which might have incidental value in a match where life totals were unlikely to be relevant.

If only I could find some way of increasing my ability to cast spells from off-colour decks, I thought, me and NV could potentially get some work done.

  • Chromatic lantern is an actual card, recently printed and cheaply available.

Remember me? We met at the RTR prerelease and you’ve been looking for a good reason to play me ahead of keyrunes ever since…

Hold the phone. We can perfectly fix our mana with a useful accelerator? Is our Specter just an Ophidian in the right deck?

  •  Ophidians haven’t really been good for quite some time.
  • Scroll Thief, Stealer of Secrets, even Dimir Cutpurse didn’t cut it.
  • Of course, Shadowmage Infiltrator saw play…
  • …because he had evasion.

I stared down at NV with fresh eyes.

  • This creature is essentially an Ophidian.
  • It has evasion.
  • It incidentally mills my opponent.
  • It has a respectable set of power and toughness, with the latter being especially relevant: blocking 2-power creatures is a thing, now.
  • It doesn’t die to Pillar of Flame or Ultimate Price, which are small but relevant edges against popular removal.

I was onboard… and in my brain, I started to brew.

The Specter’s playground

To make Nightveil Specter really sing, it’s necessary to build a deck that gets the most from his little edges.

For starters, we want a deck which:

  1. Plays for the long game
  2. Will be happy to utilise someone else’s land drops
  3. Can obtain value from incidental milling

To my mind, this suggests a controlling strategy with an alternate win condition of milling the opponent’s library. By fortuitous coincidence, Nephalia Drownyard is a card which is allied to NV’s colours and has already proven its worth against the ponderously slow, life-gaining control decks running around the Standard landscape.

Highly effective AND sporting awesome art? The perfect card.

So, we’re running a control deck, complete with Drownyards and Nightveil Specter. What are our other considerations?

  1. Our deck works best with a Specter in play, so it would be nice if we could protect one.
  2. It would be nice if our milling suite wasn’t dead in games where milling wasn’t in itself the means of victory.
  3. It would also be nice if we could leverage value out of the subtle distinction between drawing cards from our library and from our opponent’s library.

If we’re going to protect a Specter and we’re already a blue deck, it would make sense to have some counterspells. Since we’re also a black deck with a milling theme, it would make even more sense for some of those to be Psychic Strike, a shiny new toy from Gatecrash.

I have a sneaky feeling that this may turn out to be a very good card. I wonder if I’ll feel stupid or visionary in a year’s time?

Next on the list: get value from non-lethal milling.

There are a large number of creature decks in Standard. Milling the opponent’s guys might be useful if we could make such milled guys into a resource. Enter another pet card:

Have I finally found the deck for you to shine, old pal?

The Lich does double duty in our deck, stealing dead creatures from the other side of the table and recurring our own Specters which have met a grisly end. But so fond am I of the first interaction, I brought a friend along for him…

It wouldn’t be one of my decks without at least one card which made competent players shake their heads in disgust.

Many of you are tutting as you read this, remarking aloud that I seem unable to tell good limited cards from good constructed cards. Let me explain before you hastily close your browser window.

The Lich is great, but he’s slow. Sometimes, you will want to abuse the opponent’s graveyard with immediate impact: the Primordial is happy to oblige. He steals big creatures for a very small mana premium and bumps them straight into play. He can create two large roadblocks when you are facing aggression, or a very fast clock if you need to close a game.

Even better, he can be recurred himself in the late game by the Lich. In case you’re wondering, that is an absolutely dominating play and well worth screen-shotting if you pull it off on MTGO.

This brings us to the most difficult question: how do we leverage the fact that we aren’t drawing our deck, but someone else’s? Why might it be better to draw someone else’s cards rather than our own?

To properly answer this, I’ll need to share some of my observations from playing the deck which I’ll share with you shortly.

The Specter draws cards which don’t go to your hand, but are exiled attached to him. This creates a vulnerability, in that if he is killed, you lose access to those cards. But it also creates an opportunity: if your hand is full, you can enjoy a ‘virtual’ increase in hand size, because the game doesn’t care that you have 2 under the Specter when it comes time to discard.

That’s not to say you should store up his exiled collection – by contrast, I tend to snap-play any lands he draws and am strongly incentivised to use exiled removal on the same turn – but it is sometimes relevant when you are involved in a war of attrition. Little edges add up.

There is also an advantage to using your opponent’s threats and answers rather than your own: let’s call it effect density.

When I take your Thragtusk and play it myself, I’m achieving a couple of things beyond just drawing the card.

  • I’m reducing the number of Thragtusks you can use in a game by one.
  • I’m getting the benefit of a Thragtusk without having to spend a slot in my deck to do so.

These are not irrelevant advantages. Particularly in a Standard environment where players are loading their decks with premium creatures, they allow me to build a deck with a very low count of game-ending threats, confident in the knowledge that such threats can likely be obtained in other ways. The space this frees up in my library can be filled with answers and resource-advantage effects.

The little Specter that could

I finally settled on this list as a provisional home for NV:

4 Watery Grave
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Nephalia Drownyard
3 Evolving Wilds
4 Island
6 Swamp

1 Devour Flesh
2 Victim of Night
2 Ultimate Price
4 Think Twice
1 Cyclonic Rift
2 Snapcaster Mage

4 Psychic Strike
4 Nightveil Specter
3 Chromatic Lantern

1 Rewind
2 Inspiration
3 Mutilate

2 Havengul Lich

1 Sepulchral Primordial

3 Syncopate

While I don’t want to spend ages talking about every slot in the deck, I can summarise the approach I took in deciding them as follows:

  • I wanted to make sure I stayed alive, hence the plentiful removal suite.
  • I wanted to make sure my Specters stayed alive, hence the plentiful counter suite.
  • I wanted to have enough card draw to keep the deck ticking over, whilst allowing me to hold up countermagic, hence the Think Twice/Inspiration package.
  • I wanted to use all those effects multiple times, hence the Snapcasters.

The card I’m least happy about is Inspiration, but I can’t find a better solution for the moment on my budget. Suggestions are welcomed, although ripping other people’s card draw from the top of their library has been helpful up to this point.

If you like it, try it

This marks the start of my personal journey with NV; however, better players than I abound and if there is a truly powerful deck to be found which abuses the little guy, I am sure they will find it. Perhaps this post might start them thinking.

If, like me, you simply want to enjoy the feeling of playing a large Sphinx’s Revelation (which your opponent was kind enough to donate to you) in response to a removal spell on your Specter, be my guest. There is no sweeter premium mythic than the one you didn’t pay for.