NQTY: Brain in a Jar, Saheeli, and Gonti, Lord of Luxury

Welcome back to NQTY, where I’ll look at Standard cards that haven’t quite seen the spotlight yet, but will if the right conditions ever manifest. I’ve got lots to discuss, so let’s jump right in!

Brain in a Jar

The most consistently broken mechanics and cards throughout Magic’s history have reduced mana costs. Brain in a Jar reduces mana costs over time, but it also removes timing restrictions normally associated with sorceries. Casting Transgress the Mind in your opponent’s draw step and looking at an extra card—or better yet taking their only card they just drew—is extremely powerful. Casting Fumigate during your opponent’s attack step after they’ve just cast a haste creature is similarly unfair. Because you only spend 1 mana later on with the Jar, you can also hold up countermagic and start crafting your game plan to an assured victory.

These are a lot of upsides. What has kept Brain in a Jar from breaking through competitively? First, it is immediate card and tempo disadvantage. You’re spending 2 mana on an artifact that doesn’t impact the board at all. Second, the first couple activations are awkward because if you wanted to cast a 1- or 2-mana spell, you’d already have had that option the first couple turns of the game. You’re playing catch-up now just to turn on the Jar. The best ways to get around this disadvantage are to have enough cheap spells that you’ll want to cast them before and after the Jar comes down, or to have a deck that goes bigger, such that you’re working toward the 3-6 mana discounts with the Jar and the first few turns are merely a setup for a powerful later game.

Additionally, Brain in a Jar needs a slow enough environment to allow for a high setup cost. If there are a bunch of aggressive decks, you really need to spend the first few turns protecting yourself. But if the format is slower, then there are some really powerful late-game cards that can go way over the top, specifically Emrakul, the Promised End. Emrakul undoes all the Jar’s work, and can even destroy your future turns if you aren’t careful. On an Emrakul’d turn, your opponent can scry away all the Jar charges and scry a bunch of lands in a row to the top of your deck. Scrying everything away yourself beforehand isn’t exactly exciting and is an awkward play pattern you’d have to employ against opposing Emrakuls. I do have hope, though. Disallow is the perfect answer to this problem since you can simply counter the Emrakul trigger and keep working toward your Jar plan. Yes, you technically already have Summary Dismissal, but that card wasn’t maindeckable except in the most extreme of metagame circumstances.

With a slow enough metagame and the right cards to discount, I could see Brain in a Jar making the transition to a strong Standard competitor. After all, who doesn’t want to cast Seasons Past at the end of their opponent’s turn and untap with a hand full of awesome cards?

Brain in a Jar’s recipe for success is:

  • A slow controlling metagame where it can provide mana advantage and remove timing restrictions in pseudo-mirrors.
  • Plentiful cheap spells or a good assortment of spells costing 3-7 from which you can gain an edge. Duress would be a perfect card to have back again.
  • Powerful sorceries you want to include in your deck but that become absurd at instant speed. Tidings comes to mind (or the aforementioned Seasons Past).

Saheeli Rai

Saheeli really needs the right supporting cast to do much of anything. She is mostly a glorified Heat Shimmer in a planeswalker body, but that’s a uniquely powerful effect because she acts more like a Seal of Heat Shimmer. This lets you play powerful 4-drops to copy like Thought-Knot Seer and benefit immediately. Sadly, she competes in a hostile Copter world that hasn’t had quite the right amount of curve-out options available to build around. Here was a recent attempt of mine to get her to work in Standard:

Jeskai Saheeli

There are some cool things going on here and I was mostly trying to find a reasonable way to go infinite with Whirler Virtuoso. Ultimately, the deck just wasn’t as powerful as straight U/W Panharmonicon and didn’t have good enough mana to take advantage of Thought-Knot Seer, one of the key interactions I really do want in a Saheeli deck. She did create a virtual Panharmonicon with Cloudblazer though, and made life somewhat miserable for midrange decks without Emrakul (a pretty narrow category of decks these days). This exact deck isn’t that important, though. The point is that Saheeli is already pretty powerful and just needs a couple more cards to vault her to the top.

Her recipe for success is:

  • A midrange environment where she doesn’t just get killed by Copter.
  • Good 4-drops like TKS she can copy.
  • A shell that lets you curve into her and after casting her, since her mana cost can be restrictive.

Gonti, Lord of Luxury

Remember the days of Siege Rhino? You may recall them with fondness or terror, but either way it’s hard to forget Rhino, Rhino, Rhino. Gonti doesn’t quite have that effect, but it does recreate the feeling of gifting you haymaker after haymaker. He isn’t the largest creature himself, but does trade with everything and will make it annoying for your opponent since he can at least peck in damage and annoy opposing planeswalkers. The biggest downside to Gonti is that you have to justify his inclusion over Kalitas, which is better against aggressive decks, and bigger payoff cards like Ishkanah, Grafwidow.

You have two options when looking at where to include Gonti. The first is to just play him as a value creature alongside cards like Ishkanah. The main problem with this and the reason Gonti hasn’t seen more play is that G/B Delirium decks are already going to win a grindy mirror and as such, Gonti doesn’t help solve any problems there. The other option is to use Gonti as more of the top end and to keep casting your opponent’s cards you get off Gonti. I think this avenue is much better but hasn’t really had the right shell yet since again, Ishkanah has been better than anything else you can do.

What this all means is that we haven’t seen the right accompanying cards to help really push Gonti over the top. Imagine if Noxious Gearhulk was instead this card:

“Resuscitating Gearhulk 3BB

Menace

When Resucitating Gearhulk enters the battlefield you may return target creature card with converted mana cost 4 or less from your graveyard to the battlefield.

5/2”

This would be the perfect type of card to pair with Gonti and would provide a value recursion engine that can help close the game. Liliana already does this, but she plays too much into the inevitability side with Gonti, and there needs to be a way to quickly turn the corner while also synergizing with Gonti’s power in a longer game.

Gonti’s recipe for success:

  • A reason to include Gonti instead of backbreaking midgame cards like Ishkanah. This will probably come from an entirely different type of deck that isn’t available yet.
  • A synergistic way to aid Gonti’s inevitability. Good creature recursion may already be the answer.
  • A format that doesn’t go too big. Eldrazi Titans and counterspells make Gonti worse because he succeeds most when his 2/3 deathtouch body is relevant.
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