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According to Webster: Dissecting a Remora

 

A few years ago my friends and I were all chatting on AIM about potential cards to tech out our deck with the night before a vintage tournament. Yes, I’m talking about the sweet miser cards; cards that aren’t normally played but look like they could be awesome. Out of ideas, I go to my old friend, www.deckcheck.net, and browse over some of the lists from European tournaments. Those Euros always have crazy deck ideas. I stumble upon what I think is a good find and quickly send a message to my friend, “Hey, what do you think about Mystic Remora? You get to draw lots of cards otherwise it’s like a super Abeyance.” I am quickly shot down and don’t really mention the card again (guilty as charged – LSV). Fast-forward to the present…

Mystic Remora has become a widely played card in the current vintage metagame, competing with the other efficient draw engines Thirst for Knowledge, Dark Confidant, and Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge. With an insignificant mana cost, Mystic Remora has the potential to let its caster draw more cards than any other card ever printed. There are only a few decks that have adopted the Mystic Remora engine over the other tried-and-true alternatives. An explanation of important card choices will help you understand the ways to play with a Mystic Remora deck successfully.

Before last year, Mystic Remora saw very little play. In fact, the majority of lists restricted the enchantment to reside in the sideboard to fight fast combo decks. In February 2008, the earliest version of the modern Mystic Remora deck was piloted by Jeremiah Rudolph and placed second in a tournament at Myriad Games in New Hampshire. Vintage has transitioned since the tournament in New Hampshire. There have been metagame changes caused by card restrictions, new cards being printed, and deck archetypes being discovered. The changing metagame demands that existing archetypes adapt to succeed or become obsolete. If I were to play a Remora deck today, it would look something like this:

Maindeck:

 

The main concept of the deck is that drawing cards is really good, especially when the list is chock full of pitch counters. When Mystic Remora is in play, you are giving your opponent two options:

 

1. Go ahead and play spells, but let me draw a card every time you play one.

2. Sit around and do nothing while I build my mana base.

If your opponent decides to ignore the Remora and play their spells, they’ll have to consider the chances of success that their line of play will have against the number of permission spells that they will need to play through. If the opponent decides to take the other route and wait out the enchantment, they could be playing into the Remora deck’s bluff of not actually having anything to stop them.

Primary Draw Engine: Mystic Remora. The first component of the deck’s draw engine. Any person who has had experience playing with Mystic Remora will testify to the difference in which the opponent plays when this enchantment is out; it’s almost palpable. The psychological effect that is created by giving the opponent cards “for free’ drastically changes (not always for the better) the way that a player is going to play their hand.

Consider playing against an opponent who resolves Mystic Remora turn one. The deck you are playing is a generic Tezzeret control deck. Your hand is: Fact or Fiction, Merchant Scroll, Thirst for Knowledge, Island, Mox Jet, Mox Emerald, and Sol Ring. Your draw for the turn is Force of Will. What do you do? Normally, you wouldn’t have much trouble deciding what to do. Most likely, you would play Island, Mox Jet, Sol Ring, and Thirst for Knowledge while being able to play Force of Will if you wanted to as well as already having an artifact to discard to maximize Thirst’s card advantage. The problem with this sequence of plays is that your opponent will have drawn three cards from the Mystic Remora before your Thirst for Knowledge has even resolved! You have four mana in play (two on-color [Island/Mox Jet], two off-color [Sol Ring]) and six cards in hand (Force of Will, Merchant Scroll, Fact or Fiction, and the three cards from Thirst for Knowledge) versus the opponent’s Island in play and eight cards in hand. When you compare the resources on both sides of the table, there is card parity even after you resolved your draw spell.

When you consider the other way to play the Tezzeret hand described above, playing only Island and passing the turn, what happens on your turn two after they have just played a second land and passed while you haven’t drawn one? You’re in a worse position than the turn before because they advanced their board with a land drop whereas you’re in the same position as the turn before but with eight cards in hand and no land. At that point, you’d be obliged to start playing spells and let the opponent draw cards.

Secondary Draw Engine:

Aside from the card advantage that Mystic Remora provides, the deck needs a draw engine that functions by itself. There are a few options that can be used. Excluding the restricted card-draw spells, there is Meditate, Thirst for Knowledge, and Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge.

Meditate: Of the three main options, Meditate is the most powerful. It draws four cards by itself. The problem is that you have to skip your next turn; so really, it only provides +2 card advantage. Being able to minimize the downsides of skipping your turn is important; Mystic Remora helps with regards to that. The opponent is going to be less inclined to play spells after you have played Meditate if you have a Remora out. One problem that Meditate has is that it’s harder to come back from a losing board position with it than other card advantage spells. Right now, I prefer Meditate to the other options. Drawing four cards is huge.

Thirst for Knowledge: There hasn’t been a card-drawing spell used more as of late than Thirst for Knowledge. A certain threshold of artifact cards must be included into a deck that wants to play Thirst for Knowledge and maximize its usefulness as well. The decks that truly use Thirst to its full potential also have cards that have recursive abilities like Goblin Welder. Sadly, Thirst for Knowledge, while powerful, just doesn’t have very much synergy with Mystic Remora. The problem is that a deck with Mystic Remora needs to have lots of mana in play to function. Moxes are very important and having to hold them back in your hand in case you draw a Thirst for Knowledge will hinder your board development. You don’t really want to discard them. If you don’t have an artifact to discard, Thirst for Knowledge provides only quality and not card advantage.

Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge: There aren’t too many major drawbacks to Accumulated Knowledge; it just draws cards. There isn’t anything fancy about the card. There are quite a few minor problems with the whole Intuition/AK “package’ though. At the very minimum, the engine is going to take up six slots in the deck; that’s a lot.

Compared to Thirst for Knowledge and Meditate, Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge is the slowest of the three. In order for Accumulated Knowledge to draw cards on the level of Thirst for Knowledge or Meditate, Intuition must be played first (finding three copies of AK) and then Accumulated Knowledge. If you were to make that sequence of plays while having Mana Drain protection available on the same turn, you’d need a total of 3UUUU (Intuition [2U] + AK [1U] + Mana Drain [UU]) which is not going to be available very often in the early game. On the other hand, you could wait until the next turn to play the Accumulated Knowledge which wouldn’t be as hard on your mana; it would just be slower.

Intuition also has other purposes than to just power the Accumulated Knowledge engine. When you have access to Yawgmoth’s Will, Goblin Welder, or another tutor card, Intuition can end the game on the spot. Consider the scenario of playing Intuition at the end of your opponent’s turn when you have Vampiric Tutor and Mana Drain in hand; your graveyard is stocked and you get Time Vault, Voltaic Key, and Black Lotus. You can Vampiric Tutor for Yawgmoth’s Will and end the game right there. There are many other card combinations in which Intuition proves itself a powerful tool at setting up a game win.

Permission Suite:

There are a few obvious auto-includes in a heavy blue-based control deck: four Force of Will and most likely four Mana Drain (although on a side note, I had been considering questioning the importance of the fourth Mana Drain because the deck is tapped out much more than other Mana Drain decks, which suggests that additional pitch counters may be better. However, Mana Drain is crucial in games where you don’t have a Remora in play so I dismissed the thought). Being able to effectively defend yourself while you’re tapped out is of great importance. Two cards which help out in that situation are Commandeer and Misdirection.

Misdirection: This was the support pitch counter to Force of Will in the original Remora deck. Speaking in terms of utility, Misdirection’s purpose is best suited as an offensive counter; in other words, Misdirection is much better when used in combination with one of your offensive spells or other counterspells to counter an opponent’s counter. As a defensive counter, where the stack only has one spell on it which is controlled by the opponent, Misdirection doesn’t interact with many spells that the opponent could play. The narrow applications of Misdirection mean it should be limited to one or two copies in the deck if it’s played at all.

Commandeer: As more recent addition to Remora deck, Commandeer has proven its superiority over Misdirection. Some people would point out the severe increase in cost that Commandeer requires (removing an additional blue card in your hand from the game) and use that as an argument against it. The aforementioned argument holds very little water though. Why? You gain control of the spell which effectively makes it a two-for-one trade without even looking at what you’re gaining control of. There have been countless situations where Commandeer has taken incredibly powerful spells like Necropotence, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Tinker, Ancestral Recall, Yawgmoth’s Will, Fact or Fiction, etc. In those situations, Commandeer turns into a blowout.

Commandeer does share some downsides with Misdirection. Neither spell does anything by itself against symmetrical spells like Wheel of Fortune or Timetwister. The same is true concerning creature spells. Additionally, in the situations where both Misdirection and Commandeer can be used on an opponent’s spell but played for their actual mana cost, Commandeer is much harder to pay for; this doesn’t really come up as often though. Commandeer is much more useful in general when compared with Misdirection and should be included in multiples in the Remora deck. I recommend at least three.

Win Conditions:

Unfortunately, Tidespout Tyrant isn’t as good as it used to be. There aren’t as many Darksteel Colossi roaming around since the printing of Inkwell Leviathan. Quirion Dryad, which was also quite popular at the time, died out due to the restrictions of Brainstorm, Ponder, Merchant Scroll, and Gush. There are some new faces added to the short list of cards that the Remora deck would use to win a game with.

Time Vault/Voltaic Key: While the combination of Time Vault and Voltaic Key doesn’t ACTUALLY win the game, taking as many turns in a row will, assuming that you can assemble a win before you get decked. The Vault/Key combo is the most powerful win condition to date: two cards and four colorless mana. There are many hands that say, “Oops, I win!” because of these two cards. The combination is absurdly broken.

Tezzeret, the Seeker: This was the initial way to get Time Vault into play. By itself, Tezzeret functions as a tutor for Time Vault, a way to untap it, and a win condition by being able to attack with all of your moxes once you draw them. Sounds like a good card right? Yes, it is. The downside is that it costs 3UU; quite expensive in any format, especially one as fast as Vintage. When Shards of Alara became legal, many people played as many as three copies of the planeswalker. However, as people played more and more with the card, they grew to dislike his cost and replaced him with Voltaic Key.

Tinker/Giant Robot: In a gentleman’s Magic world, most people would be content winning with a non-creature. Sadly, there are those who would play with cards to stop that from happening like Null Rod, Wasteland, and Chalice of the Void. In the situations where a blue mage can’t assemble their preferred win condition, there is always the backup plan: Tinker for a giant robot. There are a few monsters worthy of being tinkered for: Darksteel Colossus (DSC), Inkwell Leviathan, and Sundering Titan.

DSC was the most common creature to go for before Conflux because there wasn’t anything that was arguably on the same level or better. An indestructible, trampling 11/11 was very hard to deal with for a lot of decks. The most common cards used in decks because of DSC were Swords to Plowshares, Echoing Truth, and to a lesser extent, Goblin Welder. Enter Inkwell Leviathan. The downside to Inkwell is that it takes an additional turn to win against a normal life total. That becomes a big problem when facing certain decks. Against aggressive decks, if your life total isn’t high enough, they can easily win the damage race. Another difference between DSC and Inkwell Leviathan is that you can discard DSC to Thirst for Knowledge and still be able to Tinker it into play which comes up sometimes.

The upsides of Inkwell are significant. The card is blue, which is important for a deck that needs to fuel Force of Will, Commandeer, and Misdirection. Shroud is the most appealing factor of all. Of the common solutions to DSC (Echoing Truth, Swords to Plowshares, and Goblin Welder), none of them can stop an Inkwell Leviathan. If Inkwell continues gaining popularity and becomes the more played of the two, a metagame shift should be expected; more blue-based lists will be running Hurkyl’s Recall or Rebuild instead of/in addition to Echoing Truth.

Sundering Titan was generally used in the control mirrors where DSC wasn’t as much of a threat because of bounce spells and the fact that blue decks run card draw and tutors to find their singletons with ease. Sundering Titan was good because a person would be holding Echoing Truth when their opponent played Tinker. Expecting DSC, they’d let the Tinker resolve. They’d be in for a surprise when their opponent puts a Sundering Titan into play. Suddenly, the Echoing Truth they’re holding isn’t as good. Still, they’ll have to use it on the titan anyways and lose all of their lands.

Sower of Temptation/Old Man of the Sea: One of the glaring weaknesses in the Remora deck’s strategy is fighting against creature decks. The problem with having a bunch of semi-useless Mystic Remoras and Commandeers needs to be addressed by the deck’s win condition. If you take into consideration the fact that the Remora deck’s combo and control matchup are good enough, then by running less than optimal win conditions for those matchups in order to improve the aggro matchup is a reasonable decision. Sower of Temptation and Old Man of the Sea fill that spot quite nicely.

Sower of Temptation and Old Man of the Sea have their differences. Old Man is better at providing continuous support since he can steal a creature more than once. However, his thievery is restricted to creatures with two power or less (sure you can increase his power and take bigger guys, but that’s not really going to happen). On the other hand, Sower of Temptation can take anything which makes it better at dealing with creatures like Hellkite Overlord, Darksteel Colossus, or Tarmogoyf. The metagame should determine whether Sower or Old Man is used over the other.

Other: Cards like Psychatog, Painter’s Servant/Grindstone, and Meloku the Clouded Mirror fall into this category. Psychatog is good against aggro decks and can also kill quickly because the Remora deck draws lots of cards. Painter’s Servant and Grindstone is another two-card combination. When combined with Pyroblast and Red Elemental Blast, the strategy can fight through a Null Rod and win. Thirst for Knowledge also becomes easier to support with Painter/Grindstone. Meloku the Clouded Mirror is more for a metagame dominated by aggressive decks. In such a field, it would be better to play a different deck than a Remora deck with Meloku unless you were determined to play it.

Playing the Deck:

The opening hands you’ll see can be divided into two categories: those with Mystic Remora and those without. Being on the play with Remora is huge. Granted, being on the play in general is huge, but that’s constructed Magic for you.

Hands with Remora: Ideally you can resolve your Remora on turn one without much opposition. What you generally want to do is play the waiting game simply by paying for Remora’s upkeep and playing mana sources. Don’t be afraid to be tapped out a lot of the time. With a heavy number of pitch counters, you should be safe from losing to a threatening sequence of plays. Your opponent is going to have two options: give you free cards or wait out the enchantment. You’ll be fine with either decision most of the time.
What you want to not happen is have the opponent be able to get enough mana into play to where they can start paying the four colorless mana whenever they play a non-creature spell or be playing against an aggressive creature deck. In the situation where the opponent is playing spells successfully through the Remora, you’re going to need to resolve a draw spell of your own, preferably with Mana Drain mana up. At that point, you can replay a Remora if you have one or wait to interact with your opponent.

Hands without Remora: An opening hand without Remora is perfectly fine to keep. Understand that the deck can function without it, though not as well. You’ll want to play draw/go most of the time until you can either Mana Drain an opponent’s spell so you can have a broken following turn with Meditate (or playing a series of restricted cards) or wait to have Mana Drain and Meditate open on the same “end of turn.

From the point after the first few turns, it’s not that easy to describe in detail what you’re going to be doing. In general, you’ll want to have a Remora in play drawing cards for you while you look for Time Vault and Voltaic Key, Yawgmoth’s Will, Tinker, or a combination of those cards with Demonic/Vampiric Tutor to effectively end the game.

The game plan changes against aggressive decks. You’re going to ignore Mystic Remora and use your other card draw spells to find your other win conditions. Don’t be afraid to play Meditate aggressively early on unless they have no pressure and you have a Mana Drain for their first creature. It’s imperative to find a Sower/Thoughtseize or other win condition as quickly as possible so you can slow them down while you draw more cards.

The sideboard needs to address some of the glaring weaknesses that the deck has against certain archetypes. The first problem is the aggro matchup. Thoughtseize is better than Duress which is why it gets the nod over the latter even though its primary use is for the control and combo matchup. Four Smother may seem like a lot, but having removal for their creatures is essential so that you can win with your card advantage before they kill you. Smother is good at killing Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant. If there are multiple people playing with U/W or U/R fish, where Ninja of the Deep Hours is their best creature, changing the removal to Ghastly Demise and even one/two Massacre would be better.

The second matchup that Remora really can’t win against pre-board is Dredge. When you sideboard against the Dredge matchup, having seven cards to beat it is something that just needs to be accepted. However, in the sample sideboard that I proposed, there are only six. The reasoning behind using only six cards is twofold: 1) I want to mise so I can have more sideboard slots for other matchups. 2) The use of Leyline of the Void is not as common compared to the other options. Currently, the most popular cards to use against Dredge are Pithing Needle, Tormod’s Crypt, Yixlid Jailer, Leyline of the Void, and Relic of Progenitus. Leyline of the Void is the most powerful option, but has become less popular. Because of the decline in the use of Leyline of the Void, Dredge sideboards have become more focused at beating Yixlid Jailer, Tormod’s Crypt, and Pithing Needle. Many Dredge sideboards only have four Chain of Vapor to trump their opponent’s Leyline compared to the additional four cards that beat the other sideboard options.

The last slots of the sideboard address the Mishra’s Workshop decks. Energy Flux is the best way to beat the Workshop archetype for a U/B control deck. When looking at sideboarding possibilities, it’s important to take into consideration the Converted Mana Cost (CMC) of the cards that you are adding in relation to the CMC of the “good spells’ in the deck because of Chalice of the Void. Traditionally, Chalice for two is very problematic because it shuts down Mana Drain. You wouldn’t want to have sideboard cards that are trumped by a Chalice set on the number that is already good against the deck.

Mystic Remora remained unused for the majority of time that it has existed. As the Vintage format increased in speed, the usefulness of Mystic Remora became apparent. What was widely seen as another weird sideboard card from European tournaments has transformed into an archetype-defining monster of card advantage. After playing with a Remora deck, one would seem dumbfounded as to why the deck had not become popular much sooner. The look of confusion could easily be mirrored by face your next opponent when you unleash the mysterious enchantment on them as they head to the loser’s bracket.

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