The sad truth is that the Whip of Erebos is long enough to wrap around all our throats.
-Perisophia the Philosopher
(From Drown in Sorrow)
Two weeks ago, Shahar Shenhar defended his title as World Champion using Whip of Erebos. Of the other 23 competitors in the tournament, 9 (including myself) piloted Whip decks. The card’s presence was felt during the World Cup and is a mainstay of the SCG Open series. The Whip of Erebos is long enough to wrap around all our throats.
I decided several weeks in advance of the World Championship that my Standard deck was going to feature Whip of Erebos. I think I made a wise decision. The card itself is outrageously good, but more than that it’s central to an archetype that has many great qualities and appealing variations. Even restricting oneself to this single strategy leaves an entire world of open possibilities. Let’s explore them.
The Best Colors in Standard
To find the right place to start I need to go back in time even further. It was probably six weeks before the tournament that I decided my Standard deck was going to be black and green, and that it was going to feature four copies each of Thoughtseize, Sylvan Caryatid, and Courser of Kruphix. Black and green are the best colors in Standard, and I think that most players are doing themselves a disservice to not play with these cards.
Sylvan Caraytid, in a three-color format, is basically a no-brainer. It represents an early play that offers both defense and a speed boost without reducing the power level of your deck. (One might argue this point when they topdeck Sylvan Caryatid on turn 10, but the fact is that the presence of extra mana sources allows you to increase the concentration of powerful, expensive cards in your deck). Bolstering your colored mana is also huge, allowing you to fairly comfortably play double-colored cards in three different colors all at once. Any game with a Sylvan Caryatid in your opening hand is a game that you can count on coming out smoothly and efficiently.
Courser of Kruphix is the best midrange play available. Again, it provides great defense against anybody trying to attack your life total and is annoying for red decks to remove. It’s especially powerful in combination with library manipulation like scry, fetchlands, and self-mill. Finally, it plays well with both the constellation mechanic and green devotion for anybody hoping to go down those roads.
We all know the power of Thoughtseize, as it sees play in top tier decks of every single format that it’s legal. That said, I’ve found it to be even more effective than usual in today’s Standard. For one thing, many of the popular decks lack redundancy. In other words, decks like Jeskai or Mardu really want to play a single creature, back it up with removal or other tempo plays, and then play a late-game spell to re-up on cards or otherwise press their advantage. If you can take away one of these key pieces, they’re unable to operate to their full potential.
For another, players have a huge range of options in sideboarding. Against this same Jeskai opponent, you don’t know whether their post-board strategy is going to center around Goblin Rabblemaster and Lightning Strike, or around End Hostilities and Dig Through Time. Thoughtseize helps you prepare for all eventualities, and I’ve found myself wanting four copies in virtually every matchup after sideboarding, partly as insurance against the unexpected.
Finally, Thoughtseize matches up fantastically against Disdainful Stroke. Stroke cannot counter Thoughtseize, so you get the ability to see your opponent’s hand and choose between stripping away their Disdainful Stroke or taking another card and playing around the counter. Forcing your opponent to sit patiently on two open mana every turn can offer you a big long-term advantage.
Thoughtseize, Sylvan Caryatid, and Courser of Kruphix are a great start to any deck. With this shell, you have a healthy number of early plays already locked up, and can take the rest of your deck in whatever direction you like. You can add a third color, gear yourself aggressively or defensively (or anywhere between the two), or build your deck around powerful synergies. These colors (black in particular) also offer great sideboard options, especially against creature decks.
Old-fashioned Abzan remains great. Patrick Chapin and others have shown us that it still has what it takes to win at the highest level of competition. However, it’s not my pick for the absolute best strategy in Standard. I believe that building around Whip of Erebos and other graveyard synergies bumps your B/G deck up one notch in both consistency and power level.
The Graveyard Enablers
If we wanted, our list of graveyard enablers could stretch on and on, featuring things like Nyx Weaver, See the Unwritten, and Sultai Soothsayer. However, part of what makes Whip decks so good is the fact that it requires so little effort to make your graveyard work for you. These decks can function perfectly as normal, non-graveyard decks if they need to. However, simply by adding a small handful of cards (which are good cards in their own right), you can take full advantage of the hugely powerful graveyard-based cards.
I’ve found Satyr Wayfinder to be one of the best cards in all of the Whip decks. It quickly joined Sylvan Caryatid, Courser of Kruphix, and Thoughtseize on the list of cards that I wanted to play with no matter what. A 1/1 body that can either trade with a cheap creature or chump block a larger one represents a lot of value in Standard. It provides a point of green devotion and helps manipulate the top of your library with Courser of Kruphix. These things alone make the card close to playable, but the fact that it helps you fill your graveyard and shoot through your library makes it truly great. You’ll be surprised how often you want to Whip Satyr Wayfinder back into play just to keep digging deeper into your library.
Sidisi, Brood Tyrant also outperformed my expectations. It puts a lot of power into play quite quickly, and ensures that your Whip of Erebos functions like a well-oiled machine. I often forget that Wayfinder and Sidisi are my graveyard enablers and not the rewards in themselves!
Commune with the Gods is a notch below the first two as it doesn’t have the immediate impact on the board that you hope for in close, hyper-competitive games. Nevertheless, it’s a cheap spell that fills your graveyard, and I found that a couple copies of Commune helps the B/G Constellation deck function better. There are also certain matchups where digging to a certain card is very valuable (more on this later).
The Rewards of the Graveyard
Let’s start with the namesake of the decks and this article: Whip of Erebos. Whip stands as one of the most powerful cards in Standard, and both of its abilities are hugely important to these decks. The combination of lifelink, which keeps you alive, and the activated ability, which provides card advantage, makes it very hard to beat a Whip deck in a long game. Add to this the fact that many of the creatures in these decks are hand-picked to have powerful enters-the-battlefield abilities and you have a truly deadly card.
Along these lines, I’m inclined to lump Hornet Queen in with the “rewards of the graveyard,” despite the fact that the card itself has nothing to do with the graveyard. Whipping Hornet Queen is a game-winning play, plain and simple. The four Hornets that stay behind stymie any creature-based attacks, and the lifelink of the Whip simultaneously takes you out of burn range. You’d expect an effect like this to cost you an arm and a leg, but in reality it’s simply an incidental benefit of progressing your own game plan! You’ll untap with a Whip of Erebos in play ready to use it on something else!
Whipping a Hornet Queen on turn 5 is the nut-draw, but I also look at the reanimator package simply as a convenient excuse to play with Hornet Queen. Seven mana is a very reasonable rate for such a game-changing card. The presence of three Hornet Queens makes it very difficult for many creature decks, like Abzan or Monsters, to ever beat you.
Next we have the delve cards, the hallmark of which is certainly Murderous Cut. The ability to remove an opposing creature for one mana gives the Whip decks a remarkable potential to come back from behind. Often, playing a Courser of Kruphix and Murderous Cutting an opposing Mantis Rider in the same turn is exactly what you need to swing an otherwise bad situation quickly in your favor. The combination of Murderous Cut and Hornet Queen makes previously-fearsome creatures like Stormbreath Dragon seem trivial.
Soul of Innistrad is great trump card for an attrition matchup. Since so many of Standard’s removal spells exile, it’s not a particularly great card to draw naturally. However, when you have the ability to mill it directly into your graveyard, it allows you to build a ton of staying power into your deck, virtually for free!
Its counterpart, Soul of Theros, also packs a tremendous late-game punch, but in a different way. Soul of Innistrad helps you win fights over card advantage while Soul of Theros helps you win fights over board presence and life total. Both cards ought to be strong considerations.
Finally we come to Pharika. Like Soul of Innistrad, this card provides an advantage in long, grindy games that fair decks will not be able to keep pace with. It’s also phenomenal with the constellation mechanic, allowing you to trigger constellation multiple times every turn on the cheap.
Perhaps most importantly, Pharika is the trump card in the Whip mirror. Since you can target creatures in your opponent’s graveyard, all you have to do is leave two mana open to neutralize the effect of your opponent’s Whip of Erebos or their Soul of choice. Sure, they’ll get a deathtouch Snake, but those are easy to clean up and manage using Doomwake Giant. Among the popular builds of the Whip decks, only Abzan has a realistic ability to remove Pharika from the board. She cannot be Disdainful Stroked, cannot be raced, and cannot be overpowered. Pharika, in the Whip mirror, is more powerful than any card has been in any matchup in recent memory.
Pharika is the reason that William Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, and I settled on BG Constellation for the Standard portion of the World Championship.
Just to be clear, Pharika is a fine sideboard card for either Sultai or Abzan Whip. The same is true of Doomwake Giant as a maindeck card. These cards play an important role, and it’s correct to include them in your deck. However, in Sultai or Abzan, you’re just shoe-horning these cards into a strategy that can’t use them to their full potential. In the dedicated constellation deck, these cards truly shine. I believe that once you decide to play with Doomwake Giant and Pharika, your best course of action is simply to play BG Constellation.
BG Constellation – Reid Duke
This is the deck that I played to a 4-0 Standard finish at Worlds, pulling myself from last place to a respectable middle-of-the-pack finish.
In addition to the specific cards mentioned above, there are a handful of reasons why BG Constellation stands out as my favorite of the Whip decks. First, and perhaps most obviously, the mana base is better than in the three-color versions. You’re smooth and consistent, taking minimal damage from your lands (even gaining life from Jungle Hollow!) and have a smaller number of enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands.
Finally, the power of Nykthos is not to be underestimated. The way games play out with BG Constellation, you fight on even footing with your opponent for the first five or six turns, jockeying for small advantages and trying to develop your board. Then, a point comes where you begin to get some traction with either Nykthos, Eidolon of Blossoms, or—heaven forbid—both! Suddenly you explode out and bury your opponent and they’re left wondering just where things went wrong.
Sidisi Whip – Shahar Shenhar
There are advantages to the other builds as well. Where BG Constellation tends to hit its stride around turn 5 or 6, Sidisi Whip can do so a bit faster since Sidisi, Brood Tyrant has a dramatically larger and more immediate impact on the board than Eidolon of Blossoms.
What I like most about Sultai Whip are the sideboard options. Shahar and his teammates opted to include Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver in the main deck, with an additional copy in the sideboard. Ashiok is also great in Whip mirrors, as the Whip decks have very little ability to attack a planeswalker in the early game.
Abzan Reanimator – Yuuki Ichikawa
Last but not least we have Abzan Reanimator, which is quite an intriguing deck. It’s more or less a hybrid, incorporating some aspects of the graveyard strategy while still playing many of the most powerful non-graveyard cards in the format like Siege Rhino and Wingmate Roc.
Abzan Reanimator is probably the most well-rounded of the Whip of Erebos decks, and the hardest to attack because of its ability to play a normal, fair-and-square game. It also has a very favorable matchup against the popular builds of Jeskai, which is one of the harder matchups for Sultai and Constellation. Given how popular Jeskai Tokens is right now, Abzan Reanimator might be the best metagame call of the three.
There’s plenty more to say about Whip of Erebos and all the variations of B/G decks that it’s spawned in Standard. However, if you’re new to the archetype I hope this has served as a helpful introduction. If you’ve already started to explore the world of B/G graveyard, then I hope I’ve pointed you towards some new options to try out. There certainly are a lot of them!