In honor of Selesnya week, I wanted to take a deep dive into a single card discussion, and give a brief history and strategy lesson on one of the more complex and nuanced cards of the guild. A versatile threat, answer, and combo all rolled into one—Knight of the Reliquary does it all, while packing a mean punch. She creates archetypes by her existence, and shapes a facet of the Legacy metagame around her. As an integral part of the de-facto aggressive creature deck, she’s made her way from an OK Limited rare to a format staple, and won her place in the game and in our hearts. Viva la Reliquary!
When Conflux was released, I was drafting it a lot. I was newly single, and had a lot of disposable income and time on my hands. I saw a lot of Knights of the Reliquary in that time, and had a pretty good idea of what she could do in the right Limited deck.
In essence, she was a great way for a three- to five-color deck to fix their mana—allowing you to be base GW, with easy splashes into other colors that didn’t rely on having a lot of spare mana sources. Much like Farseek, Knight could allow you to skimp on your splash lands, and have access to them when you needed them. Of course, Shards of Alara block had no shortage of mana fixing, and by the time Conflux came around it was relatively simple to find yourself in five-color without even trying. Where Knight excelled wasn’t in being a fixer—although it certainly helped. Knight was also a ramp spell, much like the [card obelisk of naya]Obelisks[/card], that allowed you to skip from three to five mana on the fourth turn, and get ahead of your opponent when necessary. She was a potent mana engine and a powerful creature on both the offense and defense—especially when you had a panorama or two in your 40.
The sight of an untapped Knight of the Reliquary on the opponent’s board became something of a foreshadowing for things to come.
It took a bit of time for Knight to catch on in Standard, which makes sense when you consider the best deck of the time: Jund. When your best threat is a 3-mana creature that dies to every card in the best deck, it becomes difficult to justify playing that threat. However, a short while after Conflux was released we were brought to the plane of Zendikar, and Knight of the Reliquary’s future was changed permanently.
With the printing of the Zendikar fetches, Knight went from a 3-mana 2/2, that could theoretically grow to a slightly larger size over the course of a few turns, to a 3-mana 5/5 that quickly began to get out of hand. Each tap of the Knight could grow her power by 2, and had the potential to grab a myriad of cards to perform tasks for the controller—Bojuka Bog being an important option, although we saw a multitude of Khalni Gardens, Sejiri Steppes, and Stirring Wildwoods, as well. Zendikar block was great to Knight of the Reliquary, and really allowed her to begin to showcase the flexibility of the card when there are worthwhile lands to fetch.
Throughout her time in Standard, Knight of the Reliquary saw moderate play in Naya and Bant-style decks, giving them a threat that could stand up to the powerful plays from Jund, and the flexibility to be great in most other matchups as well. This was fantastic in a time when there was a real self-mill deck in the format, and having a tutorable answer to that type of uninteractive deck in Bojuka Bog gave the Knight decks a leg up in an otherwise difficult match. This will become a trend as we shift into deeper card pools.
Despite the fact that outside of some Zoo builds, Knight of the Reliquary sees little play in Modern, I believe it’s still one of the best cards in that format.
Starting with what I know the most about, Knight is the second best creature in GW Summoning Trap, behind only Primeval Titan in terms of raw power. That she costs half the mana more than makes up for the fact that she only gets half the lands per turn. A frequent line of play with the deck was to lead with a mana creature, a second turn Knight, and then either a third turn Primeval Titan or converting an extra Forest into a Windbrisk Heights, often setting up for a fourth turn [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card]. In a deck that largely relied on having the right lands to play unfair games with the opponent, Knight was the creature with the largest target on its head. Meanwhile, if I felt the opponent’s creatures were threatening enough, she was the go-to blocker, as she was capable of holding off nearly any widely-played creature in the format without batting an eye—and if they couldn’t kill her on the spot she only provided more and more value as the turns progressed, through fetching up hideaway lands and manlands to activate them.
The “fetch Bojuka Bog” plan continued to hold weight, as the biggest combo deck at the time I was playing the deck was Melira combo, and they couldn’t afford to go off through an active Knight of the Reliquary, for fear I’d find the Bog in response to a persist trigger and disrupt their combo for free.
To my knowledge, the only other decks that featured the Knight in Modern were Junk decks that used her for largely the same reasons I was—fixing, ramp, and utility, along with a body that far outstripped the mana cost for the creature. These decks never really took off, even with its variety of inherently powerful cards.
Despite the respectable amount of play in the rotating and newest eternal formats, Knight of the Reliquary rapidly found her true home in Legacy. Unlike the other formats, in Legacy the Knight didn’t have to wait to find fetchlands, and the breadth of utility lands for her to uncover here is second to none. She changed the face of the format, and allowed many decks that never had any shot of seeing play to flourish—with the help of a few tricks down the line.
When Conflux was printed, the format looked a little different than the metagame you see today. From my history article on the time period:
“Interestingly enough, green was really the only color that benefited in a significant way from the addition of Conflux to the card pool…
…Zoo gained a threat that quickly eclipsed its previous top-end beater, and so Woolly Thoctar went out as fast as it came in, as it was replaced by Knight of the Reliquary. This was much before the concept of the “cute” silver-bullet lands came into effect, and so Zoo was the deck which benefited the most from Knight—but it did cut down on Savannahs and boost the count of [card horizon canopy]Horizon Canopies[/card] to adapt to the Knight’s ability…”
While Zoo gained Knight, the rest of the format now had to contend with the new kid in town—Natural Order for Progenitus. Though the primary deck that contained this combo was Bant, Knight never really entered that deck as a contender for slots. Zoo had a reasonable matchup against NO Bant, but was often left cold to a Natural Order off the top.
While Zoo is no longer a real deck in Legacy, largely due to its inferiority to Maverick when it comes to nearly every matchup, Knight of the Reliquary decks have continued to find success over the years—even in the face of a multitude of cards being added to the format that make life difficult for the Knight.
Alongside the cornucopia of removal spells, graveyard hate spells, and game-ending bombs that ignore the Knight completely, we’ve added Jace, the Mind Sculptor, two pro-green swords and a pro-white sword, a [card insectile aberration]3/2 flier for one mana[/card], and a variety of creatures that can stand toe-to-toe with Knight and survive or even win. And yet, she’s still scrapping along in the pit.
Mostly, it’s because when you’re a hammer, the world is full of nails.
Knight of the Reliquary hasn’t allowed the metagame to develop away from her, because she’s powerful enough and flexible enough to force the format to bend around her. When Reanimator was at its height, just before Mystical Tutor was banned, Knight of the Reliquary was one of the strongest cards to be playing against that deck, despite the fact that on the surface, she seemed slow and inefficient. Why? She gave you access to two completely different lines of attack against Reanimator, through Bojuka Bog and Karakas.
If the Reanimator player didn’t already go off when she hit, you could Bog in response to a reanimation spell. If they had already gone off, you had access to Karakas to return their threat to their hand. If they tried to play around a Tormod’s Crypt with Show and Tell, sometimes a big-ass Knight would simply allow you to race their fatty. If you ever got a pair of Knights in play, you often felt like you could just bash them until they had to leave their fatty back to block. This was one of the strongest decks the format has ever seen, and it was held completely at bay by a three-mana white and green creature.
This is the key point to keep in mind with Knight—she’s as strong as the lands available to her in the format. This format is the one where the lands make her the strongest.
Each of these lands, along with plenty of others, has specific applications against a significant portion of our field. Having ready access to them (along with being capable of attacking for half of the opponent’s life total in one swing) is what makes the Knight deck powerful in Legacy.
Maze of Ith, frequently lauded for costing a spell slot in a list and a land drop to play, becomes a powerful threat on offense and defense, as you can activate it after damage has been dealt (in the end of combat step) to untap your Knight, effectively giving it vigilance and allowing it to both attack and activate in one turn. For zero mana. Alternatively, you can shut down an opposing [card umezawa's jitte]Jitte[/card], a flying attacker that you’d otherwise have difficulty with, or any number of other problems that would be difficult to solve for no mana.
Perhaps the most important utility land of the current Legacy metagame, Karakas has the honor of being the biggest sleeper land of all time. It wasn’t until it was discovered as the best answer to Iona, Shield of Emeria that the playability (and of course, the price) of the land skyrocketed. This is barely where the applications of Karakas end, however. Using Karakas on the opponent’s Show and Tell’ed legends is an excellent way to protect yourself against being attacked by an [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card] or a Griselbrand.
Of course, there are plenty of great legendary creatures that you can play, as well. Vendilion Clique is likely the most-self-Karakased creature of all time, often being replayed in the same turn to serve as a kind of permanent Duress, clearing the way for any of your powerful spells and protecting your threat at the same time. Gaddock Teeg, while often a boon against the unfair decks in Legacy, can shut you off from playing some of your own spells. Being able to return it to your hand in order to play a powerful four-drop and then playing it again to protect is invaluable. The same is true of [card thalia, guardian of thraben]Thalia[/card] (although this case is a bit narrower, as you’d have the ability to tap the Karakas for mana instead). Much like the Knight herself, the ability to use Karakas on offense and defense alike makes it incredibly useful—far more so than it would seem on paper.
Wasteland is so much a Legacy staple that a new term should be created to differentiate how important the card is to the format. It stands with Force of Will as the only card to rival Brainstorm as the “most played in Top 8s ever,” and for good reason. Knight of the Reliquary is a big fan of Wasteland—and an even bigger fan of multiples of Wasteland. When you see a Knight in the opponent’s deck, you can almost guarantee that you’ll need to be playing around a full playset of Wastes, and that there’s a pretty fantastic chance that they’ll see as many of them as they’d like in a given game. While one Wasteland can be anywhere from annoying to completely ignored, multiple Wastes can often be crippling, and Knight is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ll see multiple Wastelands at will.
The final land of particular interest is Dryad Arbor—not so much because it’s unique as a creature-land, we have plenty of Mishra’s Factory rip-offs that are also available—but because of the dynamic that Dryad Arbor introduces. Specifically, the push to play Green Sun’s Zenith.
As we’ve seen in the recent Standard format, Green Sun’s Zenith is a pretty awesome card, even without Dryad Arbor. It can’t be ignored that the Arbor pushes the Zenith to a whole new level. When you have a spell that acts as a copy of every card in your deck, and at worst becomes a one-mana Rampant Growth (that gets to shuffle back in to be a copy of every card in your deck again later), you reach an entirely new level of redundancy and consistency that green decks haven’t been capable of since Survival of the Fittest. The go-to three-drop in most Green Sun decks is, as I’m certain you’ve guessed, Knight of the Reliquary. And for good reason.
Consider that you are playing Knight because it has a natural synergy with your strategy. It’s a powerful threat that has applications within a game to be used as a toolbox, providing you with what you need when you need it—extra mana, extra cards, answers to an opposing threat, an extra threat of your own, etc. Wouldn’t you want to have as many copies of that card as possible? Green Sun’s Zenith gives you an extra 4. If you’re running GSZ, wouldn’t you want access to a few toolbox creatures to provide additional resources in a pinch? You could run things like Gaddock Teeg, Scavenging Ooze, Qasali Pridemage, etc. Suddenly, you have a deck. By running just two spells.
This is the way a deck like Maverick or Bant begins. The rest of the deck is an exercise in how to best protect and utilize these spells. A Bant deck, like the one below, seeks to protect these spells through the use of countermagic, and to run additional powerful spells like [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] and Brainstorm alongside them. A deck like Maverick looks to be aggressive, threatening significant damage each turn, and tempo the opponent out with a combination of [card thalia, guardian of thraben]Thalia[/card], Wasteland, etc. The reality is, neither of the two decks is so drastically different, they’re just two different faces of the same die, trying to best capitalize on similar spells through different means.
While much of this discussion has been on the way the Knight decks attack the format, it remains true that Legacy has adapted to the threat of Knight, as well. A number of cards have either become important to Legacy or fallen off the map largely because of the existence of Knight. As mentioned above, where once upon a time Zoo decks played Woolly Thoctar, they no longer do so, because for an easier mana cost they gain a larger threat and more flexible option in Knight. This is the least of the matter, though—because Knight (and the decks it makes viable) is largely responsible for the downfall of Zoo in general. If Zoo could beat Maverick ever, it may still be a deck. There are more stories like this.
Where have all the Tarmogoyfs gone? This was once the most widely played creature in Legacy, and it’s now only a four-of in RUG, with possibly one or two being played in other decks, even ones that are base green. This card used to be splashed in UW Landstill, for cripes sake, or in Goblins, because those decks couldn’t deal with it otherwise. Now, it’s largely a role player, if it sees play at all. The issue is that it doesn’t do anything. Where you could once play a Goyf and go to town, now there are much more powerful plays, much bigger creatures, and much more flexible cards that eat into the slots once taken by Tarmogoyf. With Green Sun’s Zenith giving us free access to these spells at any point in the game, we’re less reliant on the vanilla beater—despite it being the best bang for your buck. Knight often outclasses Goyf along all points of the game—in the early game it’s not odd to see a 2/3 Goyf face off with a 4/4 Knight, a losing proposition. Later on, when a Goyf is maxed out at 6/7, a Knight could be a 10/10 or better—and this is a real problem for many Goyf decks.
It’s such a big problem, in fact, that RUG has had a set of Submerge in the sideboard for years—largely as a specific answer to Knight of the Reliquary. They have such a difficult time beating a Knight of any reasonable size that they have to focus almost a full third of their sideboard on answering the card. THAT is power. The (arguably) best deck in the format has to devote that much space to a single card in your deck, and even then it’s possible for you to play around or protect against it with relative ease. This is why, whenever anyone asks me what to do to beat the RUG focused field, I suggest playing Bant or Maverick. Knight of the Reliquary has singlehandedly put Submerge back into the mix of sideboard options, simply by being too good for the best deck to handle.
From her humble origins as a pretty solid pick in Shards-Shards-Conflux Limited, all the way to one of the best creatures in the broadest format in the game, Knight has earned her position with each and every fetchland activation. She’s become one of the premiere threats as well as one of the best toolbox engines, and as sets are released we gain more and more utility to uncover with her. She opens the door for aggressive creature decks to have the speed and focus to beat the overpowered broken decks in Legacy, and allows them enough disruption to combat the overpowered control decks at the same time. In a pinch, she attacks for enormous chunks of the opponent’s life, and goes toe-to-toe with the fatties from Reanimator. She threatens the best deck in the format, and is a game-winning question that they have a very difficult time answering. What else could you possibly want from a 2/2 for 3?
Viva la Conclave
While writing this article, Adam was listening to: Ohné Ka and the Burning River – Wildflowers, Everywhere!