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By: Splendid Belt, Splendid Belt
Jul 10 2017 11:00am
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Winning games from nowhere is fun. Hopefully all games are fun, or at least have something to teach us, but it’s those games where you come from a seemingly hopeless position to suddenly grab an unlikely victory that really linger on in the memory.

In my last article I demonstrated a handful of decks based around Approach of the Second Sun which tried to do just that. Stall the board, probably lose some life and come close-ish to losing, then find that second card that says ‘win the game’ just in time.

And to kick of this article, before we come to the flagrantly unfair and potentially broken card I want to build around this time, I’d like to take the unusual step of discussing a game or two which I played with last week’s deck. That’s because the example I wrote last week showed me battling another (far more expensive) control deck, and I wanted to prove that it can also beat a well put together aggro strategy – since you’d think that would be its weakness.

Before we go further, here's last week's decklist again. Apologies if it looks odd, some of the new cards aren't yet linking through properly. The missing cards from the sideboard are 2 Descend upon the Sinful, and 2 Ceremonious Rejection

Approaching Perfection
A modern Azorius deck by Splendid Belt - 65 Cards Total
Instant
3 Blessed Alliance
3 Mana Leak
3 Negate
3 Void Shatter
3 Engulf the Shore
3 Glimmer of Genius
2 Pull from Tomorrow
18 cards

Sorcery
3 Day of Judgment
4 Approach of the Second Sun
3 cards

Planeswalker
1 Jace Beleren
1 Jace, Unraveler of Secrets
2 Dovin Baan
4 cards

Enchantment
4 Cast Out

Land
11 Island
10 Plains
4 Sejiri Refuge
25 cards


Sideboard
3 Sphinx of the Final Word
4 Relic of Progenitus
4 Dispel
2 Descend Upon the Sinful
2 Ceremonious Rejection
15 cards

 

Brilliantly, the MTGO client failed to capture the game I want to show you, but what I can tell you is that I spent the first few turns countering early threats like Goblin Glory Chaser, Goblin Piledriver and Mardu Scout. Of course goblin decks can generate threats faster than most control decks can produce counters, but having delayed and survived the early rush, I kept myself afloat with Dovin Baan and Jace Beleren, partly thanks to the card draw and life gain, and partly because my opponent prioritised killing my planeswalkers over killing me.

I was lucky enough to have an Approach in my hand by turn 7, which I played, and then topdecked another on turn 8, winning the game. Lovely.

But of course the deck also loses to aggro. Just for the sake of balance, here's another game which the client did actually record.

Example game vs. Itsbeenawhile

I keep this opener on the draw. Bit light on land, but the deck's got enough that I've good odds of seeing another before turn 3. Provided I can get up to four mana, we should see some decent action, with a counter, quality removal and a helpful Planeswalker to boot. And of course our Approach is already sitting right there, ready for us. It's looking good, just as long as our opponent is a super-fast aggro deck.

 

Our opponent is a super-fast aggro deck. He opens with a Mountain and by turn 2 I'm being attacked by a Village Messenger equipped with a Neglected Heirloom. I don't cast anything on my turn, so it transforms, which in turn transforms its equipment and suddenly I'm facing down a 5/5 with Menace and First Strike. On my opponent's turn 3 I Mana Leak an Immerwolf, which would have pumped it further, so the good news is I only take 5 damage, and go down to 14 (the observant will be asking why it isn't 13, given it did two damage to me the previous turn, and the answer is my Sejiri Refuge.

On turn three I finally rip that hoped-for land, but I'm still short of Planeswalker, or Cast Out mana. On my opponent's turn I Void Shatter an attempted Full Moon's Rise, then get beaten down to 9. On his next turn, Itsbeenawhile successfully lands a Full Moon's Rise, as I'm stuck on 3 land and out of counters. So, turns out I should've sent that hand back after all.

I whiff my land draws over the next two turns, never quite achieve Cast Out mana, which would've saved me the game, and lose in short order. There are 25 lands in this deck, but still, sometimes it will just whiff.

Okay so the deck is nowhere near tier one, and yes it can comfortably lose to control, aggro and everything in between, but it does at least prove that Approach can be a great win condition.

But enough of last week’s deck, on to today. When playing the Approach deck I noticed an alarming trend that I would go down to 1 life (making me just as fragile as the guy above - bonus points for correctly naming the card) before stabilising, and eventually winning. Then coincidentally I found a similar story, albeit reversed, when taking a break from control and piloting a fun Rakdos aggro deck – I’d often get my opponents to 1 life, then run out of gas and be topdecking, frantically hoping for a Blightning or Lightning Bolt.

Since it's fun to play, let's have a quick look at the list:

Budget Rakdos Aggro
A modern Rakdos deck by Splendid Belt
Creatures
4 Monastery Swiftspear
2 Vampire Lacerator
4 Abbot of Keral Keep
4 Pack Rat
4 Countryside Crusher
3 Goblin Rabblemaster
3 Falkenrath Aristocrat
24 cards

Other Spells
1 Forked Bolt
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Dreadbore
3 Terminate
4 Blightning
14 cards
Lands
4 Dragonskull Summit
11 Mountain
7 Swamp
22 cards

Sideboard
4 Duress
4 Relic of Progenitus
4 Pyroblast
3 Vandalblast
15 cards
Falkenrath Aristocrat

 

It’s mostly coincidence that I’ve had so many games of late where someone’s gone so close to death, but held on by their fingertips – but that does strike me as good, balanced game design, where it can be touch and go as to who’s going to win right up until the end.

But that got me thinking, how can we break that game design? How can we go to that 1 life limit, teeter on the brink of oblivion, and not let it bother us? The answer is that old favourite Platinum Angel.

Platinum Angel

Last week I wrote that every Magic player’s favourite rules text is ‘You win the game’, closely followed by ‘Draw a card’. But actually ‘You can’t lose the game and your opponents can’t win’ is pretty good too.

The Angel is a bit of an anomaly in that the rules text is so blatantly powerful and open to abuse, and yet the card has never become a tournament staple, nor has it really found a tier one home. In fact when searching for evidence of the card in prominent tournament decks, I instead found a (undoubtedly apocryphal) story about a player called ‘Hans’ refusing to lose a game at Pro Tour Honolulu because he had an Angel on the field.

The story goes that with his life total in negative figures, Hans’ Platinum Angel was targeted by his opponent’s Molder Slug. He refused to allow the Angel to be killed, and a judge was called.

‘The judge said, “I have to issue you a game loss, Hans.”

Hans pointed to his Platinum Angel. “I can’t lose the game,” he said.’

The story ends with Hans making ever larger rules violations (including stealing other players' cards and kicking their chairs out from under them), and still refusing to lose until the police are called, who eventually shoot him. Could the story possibly be true? One redditor wrote: "Obviously this never happened. In real life the police would never have been able to kill him with Platinum Angel still in play, as it would have resulted in him losing the game."

But besides that, it has yet to make waves in the rich history of Magic tournaments. And whilst we’re unlikely to change that fact today, let’s at least see if we can find a workable deck in which the Angel can shine and, if not make waves, at least create some significant ripples.

Angel is great, but it has two weaknesses. Firstly it costs 7 mana. Secondly, it dies to removal. And given that your opponent literally can't win with it on the battlefield, you can be sure that it'll suck up removal faster than you can say Birds of Paradise, no stranger to odd Lightning Helix themselves.

So, we want ways to protect the Angel, and ways to power it out before turn 7. So we're going to go green for the mana dorks, and blue for counters / ways to protect our win condition (or rather, our 'not losing' condition). And since we're looking at ways to accelerate or cheat our 7-mana Angel into play, let's include another fun-but-expensive artifact creature, Blightsteel Colossus. The reason I'm suggesting we stick to artifacts rather than just go all-out and include Emrakul, the Aeons Torn (a card I'll include just anywhere it's feasible), is because of this guy: Master Transmuter. That's a great way to cheat a fat artifact into play.

Whilst the old Transmuter may be a master, she can't magic the fat into play out of thin air - we're going to need to small, cheap artifacts in play for her to transmute. And I can't think of anything better in these slots than Mind Stone, for the accelerate and potential card draw, and Spellskite for its ability to protect our Angel. In fact these cards suit our theme so well it's almost scary. I also took a long, hard look at Ichor Wellspring, since it would draw a card when it comes into play, then hopefully be sent back to my hand via the Transmuter, leaving me able to play it again for card advantage - but space is tight and I decided we'd be better served by the mana acceleration and removal protection.

Let's have a look at the list before we go any further:

I can't lose
An optimistically-named deck from Splendid Belt
Creatures
4 Birds of Paradise
1 Blightsteel Colossus
1 Elvish Piper
4 Fauna Shaman
1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
4 Master Transmuter
1 Platinum Angel
4 Spellskite
3 Sylvan Caryatid
2 Treasure Mage
25 cards

Other Spells
1 Solemn Simulacrum
4 Dispel
2 Lightning Greaves
4 Mind Stone
1 Soul Conduit
12 cards
Lands
10 Island
13 Forest
23 cards

Master Transmuter

 

There are just so many fun little interactions in the deck. You can send Solemn Simulacrum back to your hand for the cost of one blue mana each turn with the Transmuter out, then put it straight back on the battlefield again (yes the Transmuter lets you put the same artifact back into play) in order to accelerate or thin land from your deck. You can use the same trick to dodge artifact removal - another way to protect the Angel.

Or you can use the Transmuter to get a surprise Soul Conduit onto the battlefield, swapping life totals just as your opponent thinks he or she is pushing through the last few points of lethal damage.

Lightning Greaves, in addition to being a cheap thing to Transmute back to your hand in order to play a Blightsteel Colossus for free, can equip itself at no cost to your Elvish Piper, enabling you to play any creature immediately for the price of one green mana.

So, it's a winner then, right? It can't lose, like the title suggests. Well-actually no. It's a massively frustrating deck to play. The problem is it's just a little too cute, and a little too clever for its own good. Yes there are lots of different combos and tricks it can pull off, but like all combo decks, you actually need to assemble the pieces for anything to happen, and more often than not they just wouldn't come together.

In fact, the deck functioned a lot worse for me than I'd expected, and I half suspect that the deck actually hates me. I played a lot of practice games with it, and you wouldn't believe the number of times I got mana flooded. I think I drew Treasure Mage or Master Transmuter in approximately five per cent of the games I played, way lower than you'd expect statistically. I never saw Platinum Angel, Blightsteel Colossus or Soul Conduit unless I'd tutored them up, but that's okay because they're all singletons - but since I hardly ever drew the tutors - and Fauna Shaman didn't show up much either - I spent most games playing land and sighing.

I had a game against a fast burn deck featuring Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Furnace of Rath. I didn't do much except slowly die for the majority of the game, but did manage to get the Transmuter and a Mind Stone out. With three Furnaces on the table, I was low on life and facing lethal, but managed to Transmute the Conduit into play and swap life totals just in time, putting myself out of reach and leaving my opponent dangerously low. But since I had no real threats and couldn't find an Angel, I just died next turn to a Lightning Bolt.

Another time I played against a slightly odd Simic deck which pumped Hexpoof creatures in order to beat me around the head. I managed some Conduit shenanigans again, protecting it from the ministrations of a Trygon Predator by bouncing it back to my hand, and kept my head above water for a good long time. I thinned a lot of land from my deck thanks to finding and bouncing Solemn Simulacrum a good number of times, but never saw an Angel or Colossus, so eventually just died.

One of the few times I managed to claw a win with the deck was when I finally did manage to tutor up the Angel (Fauna Shaman somewhat disloyally discarding another Shaman), and equip it with Lightning Greaves. I was facing an Angel deck featuring Guardian Seraph, Angelic Skirmisher and Endless Horizons. After mostly drawing land, I eventually got Platinum Angel into play and quickly threw the Greaves on it. Evidently my opponent didn't have any board sweepers in his deck because he didn't take long to concede. There's the final game state above. Note the quality of my hand. Like I said, the deck hates me.

So, what can we do to improve its consistency? The simplest thing to remove is the Elvish Piper, which has once again proven itself to have the worst ratio of value versus potential in Magic. It could be so so good, but in reality it just.... dies. I'd be inclined to remove it for another Angel - since we're having such a hard job finding it, and we're pretty scuppered if our opponent finds a way to kill it.

I'd probably also remove a Caryatid - a card I like by the way - in favour of another Treasure Mage. Yes we want the acceleration, but all that mana is useless if we can't find anything to spend it on. And besides, we're hoping to cheat our win conditions into play.

The other thing the deck struggles with is removal, in that there isn't any. Given our colours our options are limited, and there just isn't space to start cramming bounce and more counters in - so we'll just have to rely on finding, playing and protecting Platinum Angel to do what the deck is built for, and not lose.

So, let's try a different strategy. I decided to dump green and splash white for some spot removal. I also added some Planeswalkers essentially for card draw (although their ultimates are always handy). Here's how I built it (once again, it may look slightly odd due to Amonkhet cards not yet showing up).

 

Azorius Angel
A hopefully more consistent deck from Splendid Belt
Creatures
2 Platinum Angel
1 Blightsteel Colossus
1 (Kira, Great Glass- Spinner)
4 Spellskite
3 Treasure Mage
4 Master Transmuter
14 cards

Other Spells
4 Cast Out
4 Negate
4 Void Shatter
1 Soul Conduit
1 Solemn Simulacrum
2 Lightning Greaves
2 Jace Beleren
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Dovin Baan
14 cards
Lands
1 Buried Ruin
4 Plains
15 Island
4 Irrigated Farmland
20 cards

Sideboard
4 Dispel
4 Oblivion Ring
3 Aura of Silence
4 Fumigate
11 cards
Jace Beleren

 

This one doesn't have quite so many cute interactions, but given the difficulties inherent in pulling all the disparate parts together at the right time, perhaps that's a good thing. This is a straight up counter and control deck, which aims to cheat an Angel or Colossus into play for the win (perhaps protecting yourself or getting your opponent into range with a cheeky Soul Conduit along the way).

Let's have a quick look how it plays, and see if this deck hates me as much as the last one: 

Example game vs.Diablo TT

We get off to a great start as I send away two one-mana hands and mull to five - so I start on the draw with Irrigated Farmland, Island, Master Transmuter, Soul Conduit and Negate. Not brilliant by any stretch, but likely to be better than a random four. My free scry sees me reluctantly send another Negate to the bottom of my deck, since I'm desperate for land.

I'm lucky enough to draw another Island on turn 3, so I don't immediately whiff, whilst my opponent spends the first few turns playing Vivid Marsh, then playing and pumping up a couple of Mirrodin's Cores. I draw another Island on turn four, so I still don't miss a land drop, but can find nothing better to do with my mana than play a Master Transmuter. I do have a Platinum Angel in hand, but with nothing to transmute it just sits there mocking me.

By turn 5 I'm being hit in the face by a Bassara Tower Archer (with Hexproof, so Cast Out isn't saving me here), equipped with an Empyrial Plate. As it's a 7/6, I'm currently scheduled to die by turn 7.

To make matters even more exciting, I get stuck on 4 lands, so that Angel's not coming out any time soon. I fruitlessly add another Transmuter to the battlefield, figuring I can at least use them as blockers when it comes to lethal damage. I don't want to jump the gun though and start blocking now. For one thing, the Transmuter is basically my only hope at this point - I'm unlikely to survive long enough to be able to hardcast the Angel, and two of them gives me some resiliency should one be removed. And having a low life total could potentially be an advantage, if I manage to get a Soul Conduit into play.

It's a long shot, but it might just work.

Help comes on my turn 6 when I draw and cast the brilliant Spellskite. The cute thing about having this and the Transmuter out is that I can dodge most removal. Use the Spellskite's ability to force any spells to target it, then bounce it to my hand and back into play for one blue mana using the Transmuter.

Here's the situation I face. Lethal damage is incoming from the 9/8. Do I block with a Transmuter? Of course not.

I bounce the Spellskite and put the Angel into play. At the end of turn I'm sitting happily at -4 life to my opponent's unblemished 20. The next turn I play the Spellskite again for some  Angel protection on top of the Negate I'm holding. Obviously I can't bounce the Angel back to my hand to protect it, since as soon as it leaves the battlefield my life total will start to be more of a problem

DIablo TT adds a Prophet of Kruphix to the battlefield, but the only thing that matters now is whether or not he can unravel my layers of protection and remove that Angel. And between Spellskite, the Transmuters and Negate, that's feeling pretty unlikely.

My opponent spends the next couple of turns digging through his deck with multiple Thirst for Knowledge. I cheat a Soul Conduit into play, then on turn 9 finally find the 6th land I've been waiting for, and Conduit for the win. 

Conclusions

And that's the moment I've been waiting for! In both my last article and this one I've been looking for that completely unfair, overpowered feeling where you do something which in most other games would be called cheating. I think I've finally found it in the interactions principally between Platinum Angel and Soul Conduit, ably assisted by Spellskite and Master Transmuter.

Where this deck succeeds over the previous Simic variant is in its reliability. You don't need so many combo pieces to fall into your hand to make it work. Counters are useful whether or not they're protecting an Angel, and being less reliant on fragile mana dorks is also nice. Having said that, the deck's certainly not beyond improvement, and I'd be interested to read any of your thoughts in the comments below. I think Mind Stone could be good to bring back into the fold, possibly instead of the Planeswalkers? It is hard to decide what to leave out, but I think Jace, the Mind Sculptor in particular might need cutting purely on grounds of mana cost, and the others aren't especially on theme, they're just generally useful.

And that, after God knows how many words, is quite enough from me for this week. Thanks for reading.

 

1 Comments

What no spine in transmuter by Rerepete at Tue, 07/11/2017 - 20:28
Rerepete's picture

What no spine in transmuter deck?