In Development – Tangling with the Devil


One of the more disappointing aspects of deck design is being forced to give up on a concept. We can want something to work so much that we force the issue, either screwing up our playtest results or simply ignoring them and disappointing ourselves even more at an FNM or PTQ. It takes a certain amount of willpower to decide that your design isn’t going to fly and leave it by the wayside.

With that lead-in, I might be discussing the Summoner decks from last week’s column, but I’m actually going to talk about some interesting but ultimately “not quite there” ideas that developed from that work, and some overarching thoughts on fighting the metagame that follow from there.

Oh, and a deck list.

Empyrial Archangel FTW?

The attempt to hybridize Summoning Trap with control or midrange decks was okay but nonetheless insufficiently consistent. However, I noticed that among the possible trap targets, Empyrial Archangel was by far the most devastating choice against the widest range of opposing archetypes. Sure, Iona can turn off an entire color, but Empyrial Archangel is sort of a Sphinx of Jwar Isle on steroids. A 5/8 damage shield with shroud is something Jund and Boros decks can’t deal with. Thus, by the time I stopped working with the hybridized Summoning decks, I was running a main deck package of three Iona and three Archangels.

Moving away from the Summoning Trap build entirely, I was really struck by just how powerful a resolved Empyrial Archangel is, and wondered if perhaps I could use it as a finisher in a control deck. Here are two representative builds out of the many I ended up testing:

Bant Control version one (not recommended)


This first control variation attempted to be primarily a green-white build, splashing blue for late-game [card Kiss of the Amesha]Kisses[/card] and Archangels. I’ll discuss its shortcomings below.

Bant Control version two (not recommended)

This second attempt took its cues from a hybridization of control decks from Shards of Alara and Zendikar Block play, running shroud monsters and Roils on the lower end of the curve, moving up into card advantage leading into Archangels. Once again, I’ll address the build’s shortcomings below.

At this point, after watching these decks stumble in testing, I decided to reality check myself and see just how frequently decks successfully run eight-mana spells as finishers. There certainly is a record along these lines, with Bogardan Hellkites showing up as finishers in various decks over the last few years, including red-green mana ramp and Angelfire builds, along with the occasional red or white Akroma in any number of decks. However, we must once again beware of carrying inapplicable lessons from format to format, as those decks were not facing down Jund, 2009-era Boros, or, indeed, an environment full of card advantage creatures and cascade spells. Still, I was inspired enough to change tack slightly and try a mana ramp deck that simply splashed for Archangel as a finisher in the prior Hellkite role:

Naya Archangel Ramp (not recommended)

This deck was a lot of fun as well, but nonetheless, did not do the trick. So what was the common element that made all these decks fail, as it were, to tick?

Having a plan rather than fighting a plan

If you review the prior deck lists, you’ll see the footprints of my attempt to fight different elements in the current metagame. The first Bant Control deck is tilted toward the Boros matchup, with early chump blockers in the Visionaries and Chosen, backed by Paths and Judgments to clear the board, then planeswalkers and Kisses to gain card advantage later on. As a consequence, it tends to lose hard to Jund decks, even with aggressive sideboarding for the matchup. The second Bant Control deck is primarily tilted toward the Jund matchup. It has a selection of shroud critters, and maindecks the Purges. It also includes Into the Roil, a card that shows up in Zendikar Block control decks.

What you’re seeing here is a confused mix of attempts to nullify the major game plans in the current metagame.

During Shards Block Constructed play, the general approach involved trying to maximize your own cascades while nullifying the opponents. To that end, control decks ran Wall of Denial and our friend Uril, and the more aggressive decks used Sprouting Thrinax. There were alternate approaches, of course, but for a deck that was attempting to fight Jund in more controlling fashion, this combination of target denial and card advantage was the way to go.

In Alara-M10-Zendikar Standard, this approach gets you run over by Boros. The Boros deck can pump out unpleasantly large amounts of damage in the first three turns of the game, but this alone wouldn’t be nearly enough if it didn’t also have a vicious reload plan. In my practice with the Boros deck, my preferred Ranger play grabs an Elite Vanguard and a Goblin Bushwhacker. This is minimally a five-damage reload, assuming all your other creatures are swept in the meantime”¦except that a pure “Alara-style” control approach doesn’t effectively sweep, meaning that instead of an already devastating five-damage reload, you’re actually allowing a Bushwhacker-fueled alpha strike for tremendous damage. It’s bad.

Unfortunately for control hopefuls, tacking Day of Judgment onto the normal anti-Jund approach does not work out well. You need something more here, whether it’s an Essence Scatter to stop that Ranger of Eos reload or a Wall of Denial to blank a significant number of cards in the Jund deck. In my testing experience over the last month or so, I can’t fit all the cards I need in the available seventy-five. It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s born out as being true (for now) by the results we’re continuing to see in Standard tournaments. Control decks have trouble simultaneously nullifying super-fast aggro and Jund-style cascade.

Just hit it with a rock

One of my favorite parts of the C.S. Lewis novel Perelandra comes about when our protagonist, Ransom, is trying to out-argue the Devil. After days and days of this tiring practice, the voice of God more or less comes along and says, “Why are you trying to argue with him? Just beat him to death with a rock.”

It’s a truism of Magic that threats are always more effective than answers. This is a natural function of the fact that you get to choose your threats but not your opponent’s. Combine that with the dearth of completely generic answers and you will find yourself stuck, from time to time, with answers that are completely inappropriate to the threats you’ve just been presented with.

Another way to think about this is that you want to avoid getting stuck playing your opponent’s game. That’s the message given to Ransom in Perelandra as well. Why try to turn off components of Jund’s game plan when you could instead present counter-threats that Jund is not prepared to deal with? Why try to out-argue the Devil when you could just brain him with a rock and move on from there?

This is essentially what Eldrazi Green does, incidentally.

At the end of a week of testing various takes on control, ranging from draw-go through ramp, I realized that I just needed to hit the metagame with a rock. In trying to nullify the Jund game plan by trying not to present targets while simultaneously trying to nullify Boros by clearing the decks with Day of Judgment, I created a hybrid beast that was destined to fall somewhat short in stopping both approaches.

Instead, I decided to defer more passive control approaches for later on in the season and, in accord with God’s advice to Ransom, present some threats. Here’s what I came up with:

The Heroic Trio

This deck combines a number of threads that can provide success against Jund decks specifically and the metagame at large. In keeping with the concept driving its development, let’s start by taking a look at its threats.

The clear starting point is embedded in the deck’s name, and is by far the most powerful and threatening aspect of the deck. I’ve had decent experience in the past running a four-four split of Elspeth and Garruk side-by-side. After overcoming my own desire to edit this idea ahead of testing, I eventually decided to give a try to simply adding four copies of Nissa in on top of that octet, and the effect is tremendous. I know that some people are reluctant to run too many copies of planeswalkers in fear of getting them stuck in hand, but the thing to keep in mind is that if you have one copy stuck in your hand, it means you have another in play and you are winning. Unanswered planeswalkers are far more devastating than unanswered Legendary Creatures, so don’t get stuck on that comparison.

Elspeth is effective on both offense and defense, making her a flexible threat against Jund, Boros, and other decks in the field. My usual use algorithm for Elspeth goes much like this: “Do I have two dudes in play? If yes, give one dude flying and +3/+3. If no, make a Soldier.” I strongly prefer to have Elspeth powering an offensive critter, but I like having the backup guy in case of a kicked Gatekeeper of Malakir or other sacrifice effect that might make me a sad, Knight-less panda. Notably, the otherwise moderate Nissa’s Chosen becomes a flying 5/6 beater in Elspeth’s hands, which is not bad at all.

Garruk, as another token generator, is similarly offensive and defensive. However, you need to be careful with Garruk as he rapidly falls within burnout range, meaning that he’s likely to translate into “Pay four mana for a 3/3 that counters your opponent’s next burn spell.” This isn’t exactly a bad deal, but it does mean that playing out a naked Garruk with no other blockers in front of a Jund deck is likely to see a follow-up play by your opponent of Bloodbraid into removal for the beast into killing Garruk with Bloodbraid.

We’re all now familiar with the general idea that Nissa can be a powerhouse in an appropriate deck. I picked up my copies of Nissa as Zendikar was coming out, which is also what I did with Elspeth when Shards of Alara came out. To me, a planeswalker that positively generates threats while simultaneously gaining loyalty seemed like it must be good, unless Wizards went out of their way to make it terrible. Interestingly, the apparently unexceptional Chosen are actually tremendously solid in the Boros matchup, where many of the attackers are 2/x creatures against whom the Elf Warrior is an impenetrable wall. The life gain ability is also relevant much more often than one would suspect, even in a deck that runs only eight elves. Sometimes, gaining two or four life a turn is enough, especially if it forces your opponent to kill a Chosen rather than doing something to you or Nissa.

Outside of the planeswalker package, the last remaining threat is Knight of the Reliquary, a card I’m starting to treat like a nouveau Goyf. Much like Goyf, it’s a moderate threat in the early game that can be an instant house when it comes out in the late game. In this deck in particular the Knights tend to ramp up early, as the deck may have up to two fetches in the bin by turn three. I’m tempted to capitalize on Knight by including a single Gargoyle Castle, but that will require additional testing to determine if the mana base continues to work with one less colored mana producer.

I’m happy with the full set of eight mana dorks on top of twenty-four lands as insurance in support of dropping turn two Knights and turn three planeswalkers. In addition, given that the deck runs eight fetches, it doesn’t really operate as if it has twenty-four lands in the long game. As a special bonus, Llanowar Elves enhance Nissa’s life gain and Noble Hierarch is, well, Noble Hierarch.

On the removal side, you’ll see the impact of my increasing displeasure with the interaction between Path to Exile and Boros and Jund decks. Path is an awesome card, so don’t take this as a generic downcheck, but I’ve been finding more often than not that I’m not simply trading away some card advantage when I Path a creature in either of these decks. Pathing a creature against Boros activates their remaining landfall critters as well as ramping them up to Ranger mana. Similarly, Pathing away Thrinaxes and Leeches can lead to Bloodbraids and Broodmates. With that in mind, I’ve chosen to run Pulses, Purges, and Blades. There’s some reduced versatility in choosing to mix Blades and Purges over simply having Paths, but my frustration with Path makes the experiment worthwhile.

The cards in the sideboard should be mostly straightforward. The Judgments are for those decks where you may need to wipe the field, such as Eldrazi Green. In that case, I prefer to take Garruk out to let the Judgments in, as he is the least effective in stopping the green advance. Doom Blades come in one-for-one for Purges when the latter is a dead card. The three Duresses are for potential combo matchups. Finally, the Battlegraces are a bit of an experiment, coming in for Garruks against Boros and RDW. The concept here is that they’re still out of reach of most removal in those decks and their life gain comes online instantly as long as you have one other creature in play. The obvious thing to include in their place is a set of Baneslayers, so I’ll have to see which I prefer.

Don’t play their game

One possible take-home from today’s post might be “control is dead for now.” I don’t believe that myself, but at the same time I don’t yet have a handle on a true control strategy. I’ve therefore opted to go with what ends up being an aggressively tilted midrange deck rather than suggesting an insufficiently successful control build.

The real take-home for me is that we want to avoid getting stuck in the pattern of trying to nullify the opponent’s specific game plan. Like Ransom arguing with the Devil, this is probably a no-win situation. As a consequence, we’re better off choosing our own variety of rock, and then tailoring that rock to most effectively crack our opponent’s metaphorical skull.


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