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In Development – Dr. Shaman and the Ooze

Slime molds occupy an interesting place in our understanding of evolutionary biology. We used to think they were fungus – after all, they grow on rotting stuff – but of late, genetic evidence says that they’re just their own thing. The slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum (“dicty” for folks in the field) lives a curious three-part lifestyle, where it can be a free-growing single cell, or come together with its buddies to form a slug-like collaborative entity, or finally become a fungus-like structure known as a “fruiting body.”

I appreciate this kind of versatility.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Fauna Shaman continues to be my favorite card in the current Standard environment.

This week I’m going to take a look at Fauna Shaman in Zendikar-Scars Standard from a “combo” perspective. Note the quotes there – it’s not really all the combo-tastic, but it an approach that’s been working well for me in testing so far. Specifically, I’ll review our most likely Fauna Shaman options, check in with one approach I tried that didn’t work, and then close with two Fauna Shaman decks that use everyone’s favorite Mirran slime mold, Necrotic Ooze.

Fauna Shaman builds for a new world

The departure of Bloodbraid Elf for Extended is probably the single biggest shift that has come with the rotation of Standard. This simple change has really shifted our design considerations, both in terms of what decks are playable and how we need to build those decks that might previously have used Bloodbraid Elf.

For Fauna Shaman in particular, it means two things. First, we can no longer rely on Bloodbraid Elf to rebuy our Vengevines. Second, we no longer have to warp our designs so that a Bloodbraid Elf cascade will rebuy our Vengevines.

Given that, there are a few things a Fauna Shaman deck probably should have, and a few builds that this naturally suggests.

Fauna Shaman essentials

Most Fauna Shaman decks pretty much need two things around which they are built.

First, you need these critters:

Second, you almost certainly want a Shaman-tutorable way to easily rebuy them.

In white, the options are:

Both options cost 2WW, either via casting Skyfisher, bouncing it, and casting it again, or via casting Squadron Hawk, searching up its wingmates, and then casting one of them as well.

Although Skyfisher is formally “more aggressive,” and in a sense takes up less space in the deck, it’s hard to argue that Squadron Hawk isn’t tremendously better, inasmuch as it is a four-for-one and thins your deck when you cast it.

In blue, we have an exciting visit from an old friend:

So far, we’ve all been running the Trinket Mage and Memnite duo, but I have in all seriousness been considering running Ornithopter instead. It’s less “aggressive” – leaving the opponent on an infinite clock rather than a twenty-turn clock – but it offers the twin possibilities of chumping an aerial attacker and of picking up a suitable piece of equipment itself and becoming and aerial attacker.

We might want to pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that we have to seriously consider whether a 1/1 or a 0/2 better suits our needs.

Okay. Back to looking at the three builds we can expect to see.

Stoneforge Sparkmage Shaman (aka “Naya”)

This is Brad’s list from his article last week. You should head there for a full explanation, but the basic design retains many of the elements of Naya Shaman builds from Shards-Zendikar Standard, including the SparkmageCollar combo.

The deck loses a fair amount of aggression with the loss of Knight of the Reliquary, and I have to admit to being dubious about the utility of Sparkmage now that we seem to have fewer X/1s running around. Nonetheless, it’s a solid, reasonably well-tested choice.

Trinket Shaman (aka “Bant”)

 

Joshua Harris piloted this list to a top 16 result at the recent TCGPlayer 5K in New York. It represents one option for this kind of list, as it uses the Trinket Mage to rebuy Vengevines and tutor up main deck Brittle Effigy along with Chimeric Mass and Nihil Spellbomb out of the sideboard, but eschews any Stoneforge Mystic action.

Unlike Brad’s Naya list above, Harris’s Bant list feels less well worked out (although it clearly worked well enough for him). Venser may not be especially synergistic with the deck’s normal mode of operation, and it’s genuinely surprising to see less than the full four copies of Lotus Cobra.

I think we can expect to see more Bant lists rolling around in the future, although many of those are likely to include the delicious cross-searching duo of Trinket Mage and Stoneforge Mystic.

Cunning Trinks (URG Fauna Shaman)

Jim Davis top 16ed the same event with this fairly natural evolution of the Sparkmage-Collar combo. Here, Trinket Mage does some heavy lifting, tutoring up Basilisk Collar, Memnite, and Brittle Effigy. If I were going to take an off-the-shelf Fauna Shaman list, I’d be most inclined to use this one.

Naturally, I won’t be taking an off-the-shelf list.

Delving into toxins and oozes

Two ideas stood out to me when I considered how to best use Fauna Shaman in Zendikar-Scars Standard. The first was the possibility of using the Shaman to power out a poison kill, and the second was the idea of building the deck around Necrotic Ooze.

One of these ideas worked, the other didn’t. We’ll handle each in turn.

Infectious, but not lethal

If I were to write out the high concept portion of an Infect Shaman deck’s game plan, it might read like this:

Use the most aggressively costed Infect creatures to power through a poison kill against which most decks will have inadequate defense, relying on Fauna Shaman to reload by trading off conventional creatures for Infect creatures.

This so did not work.

I tried a host of colors, and even had some Stoneforge Mystic into Grafted Exoskeleton action, but none of it was good enough. More to the point, the orthogonal nature of poison and normal damage meant that all those incidental swings the deck often gets in the early game from its Lotus Cobras and other small creatures were suddenly rendered moot.

There may room for an “all my creatures have Infect” poison deck, but the attempt to hybridize that option into Fauna Shaman led to decks that consistently fell short of the mark, with a disappointing mix of “not enough damage” and “too few poison counters” dealt to the opponent.

At the end of the (playtest) day, I had to set this idea aside.

The many lifestyles of the ooze

The Magic graveyard is an amazing place. It offers the hope of firing off stupidly powerful effects for next to no cost, assuming you can just work out the right way to get good cards into it and then do something with them.

It may not be Loyal Retainers into Iona, but Necrotic Ooze is all sorts of tempting. What if we could use Fauna Shaman to dump something with an awesome activated ability into our graveyard, and then go to town?

Naturally, this was playtested by Wizards before we ever got there, so there’s nothing that’s just clearly broken with Necrotic Ooze. It is, however, still a lovely card.

A search of all the creatures in Standard with an activated ability turns up 156 cards. If we cut out the levelers, we narrow that list to 132 cards. From them, here are some of the “first blush” cards that seem like they might be good in a Fauna Shaman – Necrotic Ooze deck:

Vengeful Archon – Prevent damage and reflect it back at your opponent
Sphinx of Magosi – Draw cards, make Necrotic Ooze bigger
Geth, Lord of the Vault – Resurrect opposing creatures
Pestilence Demon – Harm everyone
Royal Assassin – Kill opposing creatures with a more resilient body than the original Assassin
Vampire Hexmage – Kill planeswalkers
Cunning Sparkmage – Sparkmage on a buffer body
Spikeshot Elder – Deal 4 damage for 1RR
Gigantomancer – Make any of your creatures a 7/7 for 1 mana
Molten-Tail Masticore – Deal 4 damage for 4, and regenerate for 2
Myr Propagator – Make Necrotic Ooze copies for 3 mana

This is the first pass, the “woohoo options!” pass. It’s exciting, but as always when we’re excited, we run into problems with cuteness.

The Dicty model – three lifestyles, give or take

Many of these options are exciting, but they turn out to be far less effective than following the normal “swamp them with Vengevines” Fauna Shaman game plan, with occasional bursts of activity from Obstinate Baloth and other solid tutor targets. After testing in various builds, I discarded almost the entirety of that list because it was too cute and not as good as just running a normal Fauna Shaman deck.

The temptation to get cute is probably at its greatest when we’re using a combo enabler like Necrotic Ooze, or a tutoring card like Fauna Shaman. The problem is that unless we’re building a genuine, full-on combo deck like Pyromancer Ascension, we need to sharply limit the number of cards we’re playing that, taken separately, do nothing.

Gigantomancer, for example, is a fun idea. It’s also never, ever going to be hard cast. Given that it’s not Progenitus or Emrakul – that is, a “I win right now” kind of card – this is a dealbreaker.

After appropriate testing and distillation, the best “combo” cards for an Ooze-powered Fauna Shaman deck are:

 

…and Fauna Shaman itself!

Much of the time, Necrotic Ooze is a more robust Fauna Shaman, one that arrives on the scene after you’ve lost your early game Fauna Shaman to enemy action. The simple fact of having a 4/3 Fauna Shaman is amazingly powerful – it’s a bit like having a Bloodbraid Elf that always cascades into a new Fauna Shaman.

In fact, most of the time your game plan with the deck should be exactly the same as it was for the older Naya version – stick a Fauna Shaman, cycle through some Vengevines, cast two creatures, swamp the enemy. You only really need to deviate from this plan when the opponent’s line of attack demands it.

With that in mind, why am I still interested in those two cards that made the cut?

Molten-Tail Masticore is a solid card – if Cunning Sparkmage is a machine gun, Molten-Tail is an RPG-7, popping opposing X/4s with aplomb. Even more impressive is the fact that it lets you go to the face, which is useful in an environment in which a ramp deck can lock the battlefield down with a million plant tokens. Even more awesome is the fact that an Ooze with Molten-Tail’s abilities doesn’t cost you a card per turn.

Vampire Hexmage is worth including as a one-of, tutorable solution for any planeswalker at any level of loyalty.

With this highly distilled list of useful Ooze targets in mind, let’s move on to two decks that combine Shaman and Ooze to good effect.

Two ways a Fauna Shaman can use an Ooze

Having both Fauna Shaman and Necrotic Ooze in the deck naturally puts us into black and green, which means our remaining options are neatly constrained unless we want to try and run four-color aggro using the current suite of lands. I gave some consideration to a black-red-green list before giving up on it, leaving me with blue and white as the “additional” colors in the two lists below.

UBG Ooze Shaman

Blue brings with it Trinket Mage, and Trinket Mage is surprisingly powerful. I say “surprisingly” not because I’ve suddenly forgotten that I ran Trinks all the time in old Extended, but rather because there aren’t so many clearly awesome cards it can grab right now in Standard.

Of course, the Vengevine rebuy alone is often worth the Trinket Mage price of admission, but a tutorable Brittle Effigy is a solid bonus, given the preponderance of Wurmcoils that you don’t want to Doom Blade and Ulamogs that you can’t Doom Blade.

Interestingly, Gavin Verhey came up with a very similar deck list this week when he was looking toward States this coming weekend. Although he eschewed any Necrotic Oozes, we agree on a lot of points, including the value of Doom Blade, the lack of utility of Mana Leak, and the realization that Creeping Tar Pit is an amazing planeswalker killer in an environment that suddenly has a dearth of them. We even both decided to run a Vampire Hexmage in the deck.

We differ, however, on the planeswalker of choice.

In this post-Pulse, post-Ring, post-Blightning environment, Garruk is suddenly awesome again. Few of your opponents are running anything that can interact with him directly, making him either two free mana per turn or a near-unending stream of 3/3 attackers…and, of course, the threat of a lethal overrun via pumped Vengevines. In this deck, in the current environment, I prefer Garruk over Jace. Jace will draw some cards, bounce a creature, or fateseal the opponent…or just suicide with their Jace. In constrast, Garruk lets me run out more threats and makes my threats more threatening.

It was actually kind of refreshing to see Garruk be really good again.

The rest of the deck is actually pretty self-explanatory. As I said above, my recommendation is to keep to the default “cast and recur Vengevines” plan whenever possible, only shifting to tutoring up other targets or doing funny Ooze tricks when the opponent’s line of play demands it.

The main weakness of the list as written right now is that it can’t deal with Ulamog. One possible solution there would be to have Jace in the sideboard, ready to come in to assist Garruk when playing against Eldrazi ramp.

WBG Ooze Shaman

Before saying anything about the WBG variant, I should admit that I prefer UBG, and would recommend it unless you think your opponents will be nearly mono-Eldrazi.

This take on Trinket Shaman loses the power of Trinket Mage and replaces it with the less exciting combination of Squadron Hawk (for rebuys) and Stoneforge Mystic (for fetching other potentially useful things). It retains the essential Ooze package of triple Necrotic Ooze along with Molten-Tail Masticore and Vampire Hexmage.

As far as I’m concerned, the single biggest benefit that comes with choosing white as the third color for a Trinket Shaman deck is Journey to Nowhere. In facing down the eldritch horrors that an Eldrazi deck can churn up, it’s tremendously handy to be able to exile something horrid instead of being stuck either (1) converting it into two 3/3s that still clog the board or (2) just being helpless.

Stoneforge Mystic was not an auto-include in the deck, as she has no Sparkmages to collaborate with. However, having a tutorable Sword of Body and Mind is surprisingly solid right now. Although it’s not nearly as awesome as its predecessors, the Sword has confers two important benefits on its wielder. First, they can’t be blocked by board-clogging plant tokens, and second, they can’t be bounced by Jace.

Finally, access to white lets you run Linvala to try and lock out opposing Shaman builds, and Sunblast Angel which can, under the right circumstances, yield a one-sided, opponent-crushing Wrath.

Proper Ooze care

Should you decide to include the Ooze in your Fauna Shaman deck, my closing recommendation is a reiteration of my point above – don’t get cute. In testing, it was clear that choosing the cute option that tried to get the Ooze active with nifty abilities was almost always strictly worse than running the Vengevine assault plan. Your opponent will make sure you have a Fauna Shaman in your graveyard soon enough, and you only really need to tutor up Vampire Hexmage and Molten-Tail Masticore when they’ll clear a path for more Vengevine, Ooze, and beast beats.

Are you attending States this weekend? If so, what do you plan on running? I’ll be in transit to Japan, but if I were around, I’d almost certainly be packing Vengevines, Oozes, Trinket Mages, and our old friend Garruk.

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