Lightning Bugs

Shambleshark-Art-by-Wesley-Burt

Having just enjoyed myself an almost indecent amount, as I watched Michael Hetrick’s bemusement at facing down a Nightveil Specter from his Daily Event opponent, I’ve been inspired to share my latest pet project with you.

When I set out to build a deck for my amusement, I have a few objectives:

  1. I like it to contain interactions which other players aren’t really exploiting…
  2. …or some degenerate but improbable combo…
  3. …and I like the deck to have lots of ‘play’ to it.

This last point is pretty important.

To be clear: what I mean is that even if the deck is under-powered compared to the top strategies, it has enough trickiness and flexibility that I have the chance to outplay my opponent anyway. I may not always do so, but by building in lots of options, I open the door to some memorable matches. That’ll do for me.

This particular brew has tricks right up the wazoo, as some peculiar folks are known to say.

From shambles to Shark

I really like playing in my opponent’s turn. On a scale of 1 to FUN, the best-rated times to resolve spells are during someone else’s Combat phase or End of turn.

Earnest young hellkite

This deck plays 35 non-land cards, 19 of which can be resolved at instant speed and 10 of which can be conditionally granted this benefit. That equates to pretty high fun rating, let me tell you.

However, my obsession with the expression in response was not the genesis of this deck idea; rather, it was my attachment to these two cards:

When Zegana was first spoiled, a tiny klaxon began to sound in my brain – accompanied by a clipped, militaristic command to play these cards together. For the uninitiated, here’s a walk through of how they interact:

  1. Corpsejack Menace sits in play, ready to double any number of +1/+1 counters which might be placed on one of your creatures.
  2. You place Zegana on the stack, poised to enter play and draw 5 cards (one for her base power and one for each point of power the Menace possesses).
  3. But wait! As she enters the battlefield, Corpsejack Menace doubles her counters and she arrives as a mighty 9/9, drawing 9 cards.
  4. Unless you actually are dead on board, you suddenly find yourself a pretty big favourite to win the game.

Time passed.

Eventually, I found myself with some spare tickets on MTGO. I decided to create something – and discovered to my delight that Zegana was a measly 3 tickets per copy from my preferred chain of bots. Having already had a small amount of speculation success on Thundermaw Hellkites (can you believe that guy was ever 7 tickets? He was, believe me), I decided to pick up a set of the Prime Speaker with an eye both on deck-building fun and future funding of my hobby.

Of course, 4 Zeganas and 4 Corpsejack Menace does not a decklist make. I started looking around for other cards which would play nice with them.

In doing so, I began to see the evolve mechanic in a whole new light.

When I have evolve creatures in play, I really want to be able to play larger men to help them grow. Zegana, at the high-end of a deck, does this brilliantly because she always arrives bigger than the rest of your army. But Corpsejack Menace (CJ to his friends) is actually the ideal enabler, because when it hits the ground, it will double the effect of any evolve triggers.

I quickly grabbed playsets of what I thought were the most likely evolve partners for CJ, on account of being smaller than he:

Curving these creatures into a Corpsejack Menace seemed pretty appealing to me. I chucked them into the rough list that was developing, alongside this gentleman:

I then added some more goodies and chucked my little brew into the tournament practice room. While it’s not really a good representation of an actual tournament environment, it’s certainly a place where players are actively trying to be competitive – and a good way to start identifying whether a deck works in principle, or just does nothing and falls over.

Here’s what I learned over the course of a few games:

  • Playing an Experiment One was almost always better than playing a Raptor on turn 1… to the extent that I started to curse starting hands with both of them, because I would end up stranding my Raptor for several turns whilst beating down with and evolving the Human Ooze.
  • Playing a strategy which relied on playing out progressively greater numbers of creatures was, predictably, an absolute dog to decks with Supreme Verdict.
  • Curving evolve creatures into a Corpsejack Menace was absolutely INSANE.
    • In fact, throwing down CJ onto a board with two Experiment Ones transformed my position against Verdict decks. Suddenly, I had two men who could survive a board-sweeper, potentially at 2/2 or bigger; that was nothing to sniff at.
  • It was amazing to cast Zegana with a decent sized creature in play, even better with CJ… but because I only ran two, it rarely happened.
    • As a curve topper she seemed promising, but the reality was that I was winning games before she came online, or losing them without seeing her.

I started to play with the deck, reducing the numbers of Raptors and going to a singleton Zegana. At the same time, I started to look quizzically at my 3-drop column, which had but a single occupant:

I’m sure you can follow my reasoning for including this cheerful chap.

He hits hard, evolves my smaller aggressive creatures and has a late-game interaction with the Corpsejack Menace; nonetheless he was lonely, pining for a 3-drop to call ‘friend’. As I was slotting other tweaks into place, I decided to add a singleton companion for him as a test… and inspired by the fun I’d been having flashing down Shamblesharks, I chose Wolfir Avenger.

Then it was back to the battlefield.

A new era

My word, the deck was better.

This is largely attributable to my drawing the singleton Wolfir Avenger in an unrealistic percentage of matches. He was exactly what I wanted in all the scenarios I had previously found difficult:

  • If the opponent was playing counterspells, I could cast him at awkward times when their mana was pressured.
  • If they were blowing up the board, I could regenerate him.
  • If they were more aggressive than I was, he was the perfect surprise blocker to ruin their attacks.

In addition, he added new depth to my proactive plan:

  • He almost always evolved my army.
  • He proved to be the perfect aggressive partner for Dreg Mangler: end step Wolfir, untap, Mangler, bash was the surprise swing that ended quite a few games.
  • He wasn’t half bad with Shambleshark either. Flashing down the shark, followed by the wolf was another popular aggro package.

I added another, then quickly went up to three.

Once I was on the Wolfir train, it was an easy next step to throw in a couple of Yevas.

Yeva doesn’t regenerate, but she does all the other great stuff that the wolf does – lightning blocker, unexpected attacker, an all-round tricksy hobbit (or elf).

Charmed, I’m sure

As I thought about Yeva’s lack of regeneration, it struck me that this might be the perfect deck for some charms.

  

As a creature deck, my major problem is removal.

Removal of the targeted kind is uncomfortable, but with some counterspells and regenerating men, not fatal. Mass removal, however, is a big problem in this format – it tends to be uncounterable:

What I really needed was a way to stop Supreme Verdict. Golgari Charm does exactly that, thanks to its regeneration mode, so I decided to slip a couple into the list. Simic Charm was less compulsory in my mind, but I elected to try it out because I was already in the colours and all of the modes are useful.

The charms have been mixed  but generally positive in their effectiveness. They’re always functional; sometimes they have too little impact to turn a game I’m losing, while in others they create a game winning blowout.

Golgari Charm has generally been the better of the two, because winning a combat or surviving a board sweep is sensational. As a bonus, blowing up an Oblivion Ring or detention sphere can be pretty handy, especially when it returns a creature who evolves your team and becomes the difference between an ineffectual swing and a lethal one. The -1/-1 mode is the most variable in terms of value, but when it’s good… my word, it’s ridiculous.

Against a red aggro deck, I managed to dig my way out of a slow start (too many tapped lands!) with the perfect Golgari charm moment. My opponent played a Legion Loyalist, then a Lightning Mauler, then a Stromkirk Noble over his first three turns. With Rancor on the stack, I killed his team.

If you manage to resolve a better Golgari Charm than that, please send me a screenshot and I’ll be happy to award some kind of prize.

The bitterest pill

I played with the deck a little more, noting the situations in which I was winning and losing, before finally coming clean with myself: as much as I loved her, Zegana was not right for this deck. With regret, I was forced to wave her goodbye… in the maindeck at least. Still, at least there was some upside:

Zegana Price

I’m telling you, folks, this speculation lark is easy.

  • Wait a couple of weeks after a set releases
  • Note which degenerately powerful Mythic rares aren’t seeing play yet
  • Buy some
  • …wait…
  • Sell them to pay for your ongoing adventures in deckbuilding

What could be simpler?

DISCLAIMER: The Author is lucky, not good. Do not try this at home.

The end… for now

After all of the building, tweaking and flashing-in-monsters-on-the-end-stepping, here’s where I arrived (click to enlarge):

BUG Flash Deck

A few observations about the current state of this monstrosity are warranted:

  • My manabase still feels shaky. I seem to mulligan a lot because I can’t cast early spells, although I’m not sure precisely the best way to tweak it at present. I shall probably need to invest some time in analysing it a little more scientifically, although I can’t think of a less appetising way to blow the precious minutes I get to spend thinking about Magic.
  • Disciple of Bolas does a nice Prime Speaker impression whilst padding out your life total, but it’s difficult to know exactly when to play it – frequently the best play is to preserve your high-powered creatures on the board, ensuring that you keep pressuring the opponent. I tend to hold him back against control decks when I have regeneration available, since my men will live through removal, whereas I’ll cash in a 4/3 Shambleshark much of the time to keep the cards flowing. Perhaps the deck can live without him, but I wanted to have some card advantage available.
  • Ultimate Price should really be Abrupt Decay, an oversight I intend to remedy next time I have some spare MTGO tickets. Rakdos Cackler, Burning Tree Emissary, Boros Reckoner and Loxodon Smiter all need to die… and Ultimate Price falls woefully short of dealing with them. Killing Lilianas and Domri Rades is just gravy.
  • My sideboard plan needs work. At the moment, it has all the hallmarks of a ‘more of what you like’ strategy, which isn’t ideal. I’m also playing with a transformational package, which sees us side into Thragtusks and Prime Speakers to win grindy midrange wars. Is it good? I don’t know yet… ask me in a week.

These details aside, though, I’ve had great fun mucking around with the deck. If you get the chance, throw it together and have fun making your opponent guess what the hell is going on when you pass with 5 open mana.

Monty Python had the right of it: Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition, nor do they expect a regenerating Wolf Warrior in their Declare Attackers step.

Author’s note: Patrick Chapin has, THIS VERY DAY, ninja’d me with a post on SCG which touches on the CJ and the Prime Speaker interaction. I suppose if I had to be beaten to publication by anyone…

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