Clouded Judgement

Death Cloud The trouble with public polls is that they don’t lie – even when you’d like them to.

You just want me to lose money, you merciless animals

You just want me to lose money, you merciless animals

Ah well, I can’t be too unhappy. It’s a license to brew, after all… even if it is likely to take me down some strange alleyways.

What we learned in our last adventure

A couple of weeks back, I received a sound thrashing from the Modern metagame as I tested my Boomtown land destruction deck. In the course of taking my licks, I learned the following lessons:

  1. Proactivity is King: As a rule, you can’t sit back in Modern. You need to be doing powerful things starting early in the game.
  2. Disruption needs to be backed up… HARD: It’s great to disrupt your opponents, it really is. But don’t expect to wreck their hand, or mana, then have ages to close the game out. In Modern, there are too many good top-decks. You have to kill them quickly.
  3. The field is too wide to be hated out: Modern is full of different, powerful decks doing different, powerful things. Cute metagame decks are not the ticket to success… with only 60 cards in your library, you can’t hate ’em all.

In short, we have to go big or go home. Just to make it spicy, I also have to go big in a way that isn’t terribly popular with other people. Where to start?

A bunch of terrible decks

Toshiro Umezawa

Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear this, but the first thing I did was throw all my hard-earned lessons out of the window to build a durdly, slow, ‘cute’ metagame deck.

    

O – M – G guys, with the printing of Illness in the Ranks we can set up the Toshi interaction way earlier in the game!

  • We can gain INSANE card advantage by flashing back the instants that make up most of our deck!
  • We can auto-trigger morbid spells and blast people out with a bunch of 5-point Brimstone Volleys!
  • We can dredge all our amazing instants with Darkblast…AND IT’S AN INSTANT!
  • GIFTS UNGIVEN IS A 6-FOR-1, SO MUCH VALUE AAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGHHHH

This deck was absolutely horrible, but I still had several goes at it. I justified it to myself with the mantra that Illness in the Ranks completely shuts down Splinter Twin. Eventually, I realised that I had incorporated so many cute interactions, there was literally no space to fit a way to reliably win.

This ‘deck’ is everything that’s wrong with the Modern cardpool. Let’s close the book and move on. Next on the list…

Salvaging Station

  

Back in the day, I used to play KCI in Mirrodin-era standard. My version was the vanilla, activate Myr Incubator then sac the tokens to Belcher you strategy. I remember getting demolished in a mirror match by one Paul Lim, who played a salvaging station variant which seemed very sweet. Although I have very few delicious artifact lands to feed into the furnace, I decided I’d have a bash at reinventing the strategy.

Sadly, I’m not actually good enough at Magic to build this deck. The rules interactions around my half-remembrances of how Paul played it escape me; trying to work them back makes me feel like an idiot:

  • If I animate a Blinkmoth Nexus, I can sac it to the Ironworks and get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… with the Nexus in my graveyard, is it still an artifact? If so, I can replay it with the station…unless it’s still a creature.
  • My head hurts.

I started to think about another approach:

  • I can activate a Chimeric Mass, sac it to the Ironworks and get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… I can replay it with the station. Still so far, so good.
  • Oh, wait. It’s a 0/0 if I activate it and just dies.

Determined not to let this go, I tried one more time:

  • If I crack an Origin Spellbomb, then sac the Myr token to the Ironworks, I’ll get an untap trigger for Salvaging station…so far, so good.
  • Now… I can replay the Spellbomb with the station, use one of my two floating mana to crack it again… and repeat the loop. Still so far, so good.
  • I end up with as much colourless mana as I want. Where does that get me?

Well, lots of places.

  • If I have some other trinkets, like Conjurer’s Bauble or Chromatic Sphere/Star, with a second Salvaging Station I can draw my deck… that’s a thing.
  • If I can put a Disciple of the Vault into play, I can burn the opponent out with triggers.
  • If I have an Emrakul in my hand, I can cast it and probably win.

I’m not going to lie to you, this deck actually sounded quite sweet in my head. Then, reasonable Dave got involved and ruined everything. Brewer Dave, you are an idiot! He screamed. Here is why:

  • You have a combo which requires 3 cards to assemble, but which doesn’t just win when they do. It then needs a range of other cards to do anything at all.
  • It folds to a single counterspell on the Salvaging Station, or the Ironworks. It folds to a single piece of artifact kill.
  • This is the kind of thing players do when they’re starting out: build Rube Goldberg machines. It’s forgivable after 3 months of playing the game, not after 20 years.
  • And besides… you’ll be playing the bloody thing on Magic Online. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MANY CLICKS THIS WILL TAKE?

And just like that, the dream was over: shattered by a brazen lack of click-economy. I will do many things in pursuit of brewer’s euphoria, but not even I am prepared to sacrifice the touchpad of my laptop and the viability of my index finger.

Sway of the Stars

  

I could suspend a Greater Gargadon, right, then suspend Sway with Jhoira, right, then somehow hang on for ages and BOOM! Hasty Gargadon, swinging for your whole life total!

I need a drink.

Old favourites are the best

I needed something with oomph. I needed something which could disrupt the fast decks, but also resolve big, game altering effects and deploy threats which killed in short order. Frankly, I needed a break.

Walking into work at 5.45am, I decided to stop churning decks through my brain and just watch an LSV Modern Masters draft video. At one stage in the draft, Luis was presented with the opportunity to draft a Death Cloud, after passing a Greater Gargadon.

“Death Cloud/Gargadon… yeah, no-one’s beating that,” was the general flavour of his remarks on the subject.

 

Jerry Maguire-style, he had me at ‘Death Cloud’. I was all-in.

Let’s just sacrifice everything!

Licking the nib of my digital pencil, I started to scribble down a list of things which would work well with a mass sacrifice scheme.

The first name on the teamsheet was Bloodghast. Sac him, discard him, mistreat him however you like – he is coming back for more, like a trusting (if undead and blood-hungry) puppy.

If we’re going to be playing with the little Vampire who could, we might as well abuse Smallpox too. Discarding a Bloodghast to Smallpox, then playing a land is a sweet, sweet feeling. Now, how else might I break the symmetry of Smallpox?

  

OK, bear with me on this one. I want you to imagine the following sequence of plays:

  • Turn 1, make a Black/Red dual land and suspend Greater Gargadon.
  • Turn 2, make a Swamp. Play the talisman. Tap it for a colourless mana, return the Swamp to hand and play the borderpost.
  • Turn 3, Smallpox; in response, sac your only land to the Gargadon.

It’s a tiny thing, but by playing out the Smallpox in this way, we can eke out a tiny bit of value from that land we would have been forced to send to the graveyard anyway. One time counter on a Gargadon can be the difference between success and failure.

Oh, and we’re not justifying these mana-rocks purely on the basis of a corner case like the one above – they’re also great with Death Cloud, which will not force you to sac them. Needless to say, in an ideal world all our actual lands will be going the way of the Gargadon while Death Cloud is on the stack.

  

I was also going to need more creatures which interacted well with sacrifice – preferably the kind who will bounce back after a dose of the Pox, or a close encounter of the cloudy kind. Geralf’s Messenger seemed beefy and well suited to the job, but I resolved to try Epochrasite in this slot too; in all likelihood, the deck would regularly be working with very restricted mana, which might leave the cheaper creature better placed within my overall strategy.

  

At this point, I finally decided to start learning the lessons of my previous foray into Modern. I wanted to start interacting with my opponent immediately – and I did not want to be run over by an aggressive deck without hope that I could staunch the bleeding.

Death Cloud is great, but it’s slow in the context of the format. These two cards would keep me in the game until my bigger effects came online.

Now, time for a confession: I couldn’t really make this deck without running the next card… and there is no way I can describe her as ‘bargain basement’.

Lili is the only truly expensive card in my deck, but she’s essential to its function. She gives me more hand disruption, another way to interact early with a hexproof idiot and an ultimate which, on the rare occasion it goes off, is pretty relevant to my plan of inflicting a crippling resource grind on the opponent.

So, what does this monstrosity end up looking like?

The Meatgrinder

The beast, unveiled.

The beast, unveiled.

This is what I’m proposing to take into the two man queues.

I opted for Epochrasite over Messenger, both because it is cheaper (resources will assuredly be scarce) and because it is a better blocker in the face of early aggression. It also comes back more than once in a longer game, which can be surprisingly relevant.

I included Damnation in the maindeck, in order to have an answer to sturdier creatures and a catch-all in the event that I was being savagely beaten down as my gameplan was stuttering. If I expected more slow decks, these two slots would probably be occupied by Thoughts of Ruin, but as it stands, those are relegated to the board.

My game plan is simple:

  • I want to suspend a Gargadon, ideally on the first turn, then begin a brutal slog of resource destruction which I can mitigate from my own side by abusing my sacrifice outlet and recurring threats.
  • I want to nickel and dime my opponent with as many Smallpoxes and Liliana activations as possible, so that, by the time I bring a hasty 9/7 monster to bear, they will have as close to zero permanents and cards as possible. If I can achieve full blowout by resolving a Death Cloud from which I can easily recover, but which floors them completely, so much the better.
  • I want to squeak every point of damage and life loss out of my Bloodghasts, Epochrasites and spells as I can, so that my Gargadon is as close as it can be to lethal.

My deckbuilding motivations are pretty simple, too:

  • I want to beat the most successful Modern deck of recent times, Melira Pod.
  • I want to be brutally hostile to aggressive creature decks in Game 1.
  • I want to be able to transform, after sideboarding, into an even more focussed Land Destruction deck against slower strategies which commit less early pressure to the board.

  

Time will tell how successful I have been on each of these counts, particularly against such a resilient strategy as Melira Pod – but I feel like I’m starting from a good place. Sam Pardee, after his GP winning performance with the deck, said that his worst matchup was ‘anyone with Pyroclasm’… I am the maindeck Pyroclasm guy. Smallpox is also no picnic for creature-combo decks; in the board I have Torpor Orb to nerf any infinite-trigger shenanigans.

Playing the deck… tightly

I’ve run various iterations of this deck through the Tournament Practice room to get a feel for it and sand off the rough edges. Those practice games have taught me that, more than any other strategy I can remember playing with, this one rewards precise sequencing and awareness of the game state.

Here are some of the mistakes I made when I started to learn the deck:

  • I routinely missed opportunities to sacrifice a Bloodghast to Greater Gargadon before playing a land, which would recur it for free.
  • I forgot several times to hold priority when casting a Smallpox, Death Cloud or Thoughts of Ruin; this meant that I missed out on a number of free sacrifices to my Gargadon and instead wept, as my permanents sank uselessly into the graveyard alongside my opponent’s.
  • I once forgot to take account of the 1-point life loss incurred by casting a Smallpox; in combination with the damage incurred from playing the spell with Talisman of Domination, I dropped to zero life and lost a game I was favourite to win.

These mistakes are soul-destroying and leave one gripped with the conviction that they are the poorest player of the game who has ever drawn a card. But, certainly for someone of my modest ability, they are necessary: from the agony and shame, I have forged an iron determination to eliminate such idiocy from my play.

I want to never miss a sacrifice, or a Bloodghast trigger.

I want to never accidentally pull my Gargadon off-suspension with a sacrifice-inducing spell on the stack (something I have caught myself about to do twice, but thankfully averted).

I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror after every match.

Here we go again

The people have spoken: it’s time to jump back in those queues and see if we can manage better than an ignominious 25% record.

If I lose, I lose alone; if I win, I win for Gerry Boyd and every other man, woman and child who has ever resolved a Death Cloud with a tear in their eye.

Stealing a library for fun and profit

IMPORTANT NOTICE

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.