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By: RexDart, Chris J. Wynes
Nov 26 2013 12:02pm
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 It's been well-discussed over the years that blue struggled to find an iconic creature type to showcase.  In the early days, Djinn filled this role.  Yet strangely enough, most of the great tournament-playable Djinn were not blue.  Another problem was that, despite some early support from Arabian Nights and Mirage, Djinn just didn't fit the flavor of later sets.  Awkward attempts to cram them into Mercadian Masques and Urza's Saga followed, as well as a five-color cycle in Invasion.  The idea of the tribe was to be undercosted fatties with a drawback, and tournament players loved that, but it's hard for design and development to strike that balance consistently.

By the time Ravnica block rolled around, Djinn had been off the map for some time.  It was time for a new big blue flier to take it's seat at the head table, and when the Azorius guild was unveiled in Dissension, the Sphinx entered the spotlight.  The first batch of Sphinxes in Dissension was not a hit.  But an important design decision was made at that point.  Taking a cue from the original Sphinx, it was decided that card-drawing would be a prominent feature of the tribe.

Petra Sphinx was not a tournament powerhouse.  But it established a link between Sphinxes and card advantage, and that is always something tournament players are interested in.  A Sphinx doesn't always offer raw card-drawing, sometimes you have to be willing to work a bit to get your reward.  Of all the big, fat creatures, Sphinxes skew the most Johnny-Spike,  favoring creative players who love to win games but don't restrict themselves to doing so by brute force.  By loosely following this pattern with the Azorius Sphinxes, Magic's design team laid the groundwork for the tribe's eventual rise to tournament relevance.

2007 - Vexing Sphinx

Vexing Sphinx embodies the Johnny-Spike nature of the tribe.  It's an undercosted fattie with a drawback, and gives clever players an opportunity to turn the drawback into a gain.  But even if you play it straight, it's not a bad deal.  You get a solid blocker, discard once, attack with your four-power flier, then add the second age counter before binning the creature and drawing two cards.  Of course, you didn't have to play it straight -- Coldsnap was in Standard with Time Spiral block, so you had the madness mechanic available, as well as Dredge-like Bridge from Below decks.  Vexing Sphinx saw play in rogue decks along those lines, as well as sideboard play in draw-go control decks that were just happy to have an early blocker that effectively cycled itself.  In a surprising turn of events, the card saw play three years later in Legacy, not in a graveyard-based deck but in straight-up UW Aggro.  In the heights of the Survival of the Fittest era, Vexing Sphinx reached the finals of SCG Richmond in December of 2010.  The white-weenie decks of that era were based on Mother of Runes, some cheap beaters like Jotun Grunt, and Umezawa's Jitte to dominate the creature-deck mirrors.  But the volume of hatebears wasn't as good back then as it is now.  Splashing blue allowed the deck to play Force of Will to improve the combo matchup.  Vexing Sphinx can carry a Jitte with the best of them, and provided some potential to cycle through your deck in a way white-weenie usually can't, though his weakness to Swords to Plowshares makes it a suspect call in any metagame where white is heavily-played.  The Survival decks had pushed UW Countertop out of the metagame for a brief moment, and Vexing Sphinx had a small window to shine.

2008/09 - The Age of Etherium

Whereas Djinn had always been handcuffed by requiring a Middle-Eastern or African flavored set, Sphinxes proved to be more flexible.  When Shards of Alara hit the shelves in 2008, the Esper shard proved to be a perfect home for the tribe.  The fun and powerful cascade mechanic was the hit of the block, and Enigma Sphinx found a home in 5-color cascade.  

Sphinx of the Steel Wind boasts an Akroma-like text box full of awesome abilities, which practically begs for it to be cheated into play.  And indeed it was.  After the unbanning of Entomb in Legacy, reanimator decks were at an all-time high.  Mystical Tutor gave the decks incredible consistency, and main-deckable graveyard hate like Deathrite Shaman was still years away from seeing print.  Sphinx of the Steel Wind is an amazing roadblock in the face of any aggro deck without access to the white exile spells -- if you stuck this guy against Zoo and they didn't have Path to Exile, it was game over.  Even against islandwalking Merfolk, the Sphinx can often race effectively.  The lifelink ability could even give storm combo decks a hard time, adding several spells to their necessary storm count for a lethal Tendrils of Agony provided you could swing with it at least once and didn't have to use Reanimate.

Sharuum the Hegemon, better known for being the General that jerks play in EDH, also saw play in Standard.  PT San Diego is best remembered for the dominance of Jund and Luis Scott-Vargas' fantastic run with Boss Naya, but the Top 8 also featured an Esper control deck that put the big fat Sphinx to excellent use.  To see how, we'll need to move ahead to Zendikar, and another batch of great, competitive Sphinxes...

2010 - Big blue fliers for the win?

Sphinx of Lost Truths provides a reasonable body, but what you're really looking for is the looting ability.  You can, of course, pay the kicker and just draw the three cards, but what fun would that be?



Open the Vaults was perhaps the best mass-reanimation spell printed in years, and this deck can definitely get some value out of it.  Use the Sphinx to loot a few great artifacts into your graveyard then return them all at once.  The Architects of Will can be dumped there by cycling them, and the Courier's Capsule naturally ends up there as well, so there's plenty of ways to keep churning through your deck and staying alive until you can finish your opponent off with one or more large fliers.  

Sphinx of Lost Truths went on to see considerable play throughout its time in Standard, being included in various Pod decks as well as U/G/x Dredgevine decks.  After rotation, it continued to see occasional play in Legacy Dredge decks as a Dread Return target.

Sphinx of Jwar Isle may not look like much; he's "just" a 5/5 flier with shroud for six mana.  But in the pre-Titan era, this didn't look so bad, and it was actually well-positioned as a control finisher for much the same reason that Aetherling is today.  Jund took up such a big part of the metagame that UW Control was looking for a finisher that didn't fall prey to Terminate or Maelstrom Pulse, of which Jund usually packed 6-8 total copies.  Baneslayer Angel was superior in some matchups, but the Sphinx was a popular alternative.  After most of the Jund deck rotated out with the departure of Alara block, and the Titans made their debut in M11, the Sphinx declined in popularity.  During ZEN/SOM Standard, UB Control occasionally ran one or two, but usually preferred to win with Grave Titan or Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

2011/12 - This is the silliest control mirror in history...

During the Titan Era of Standard, most six-mana creatures were dismissed on sight with the line "Why wouldn't I rather cast a Titan for this?"  It was a huge hurdle to overcome.  To see play, anything over four mana pretty much had to give you value when it resolved.  Consecrated Sphinx didn't give you immediate value, but living until the opponent's draw step is a much easier bar to clear than living to your own untap step.  If you made it that far, it gave you two cards.  If your opponent had to spend a spell removing it, the Sphinx was basically a three-for-1.  If all it did was close out games when you had a lead, there were usually better creatures for that, but Consecrated Sphinx could also catch you up when you were slightly behind, and if you drew into countermagic you could find the tides quickly turning in your favor.

Consecrated Sphinx was a fixture at the top tables for months on end, as UB Control became a Tier One fixture of Scars/Innistrad Standard.  Wurmcoil Engine was often dubbed "the Sixth Titan", but on any given Saturday that honor might have truly belonged to the Sphinx.  The card littered the top tables week after week, and posted countless 4-0 Daily Event finishes on MTGO.  A good example is this list, which placed 2nd at Grand Prix Baltimore in February 2012:



Unfortunately, the Sphinx was so popular, that you were bound to encounter the mirror.  Two Sphinxes starting at each other across the table creates one of the most absurd mini-games in all of Magic.  Player A draws a card for the turn.  Player B can use his Sphinx to draw two cards.  If he does, Player A will get a trigger for each card Player B draws.  Each trigger resolves individually, and the question becomes: who blinks first?  This was a difficult riddle to solve.  The active player would get to use all the cards he drew, having just untapped.  The non-active player likely had some lands tapped, so the active player could draw into a big threat and force it through with countermagic.  For that reason, it was often best for the non-active player to decline using the ability rather than start an arms race.  But given the important of hitting land drops in that mirror, there were certainly some occasions where it was advisable to go for it anyhow.  Control mirrors are not usually my cup of tea, but some of the wackiest games I can ever recall watching involved mirror-Sphinxes and one player's dogged refusal to back down well past the point he should have stopped drawing cards.

2013 and beyond - Prognostications

What does the future hold for the Sphinx tribe?  Now that WotC has committed to making Sphinxes the feature tribe of big blue, we should expect new entrants on a regular basis.  Theros has already given us Prognostic Sphinx, which so far has been a fringe player in Standard, seeing a bit of play in UB Control after Shota Yasooka's respectable finish in the PT with a pair of Sphinxes in his 60.  Scry 3 is a powerful ability, and in a proper control deck with a variety of answers, it feels much like casting Demonic Tutor every turn.  It also protects itself, though at the cost of a card and with few discard/graveyard synergies in Standard at present.  Not a runaway success, but we can safely predict that WotC will continue to print Sphinxes that are at least in consideration for tournament play.  

With Angels, Dragons, Hydras and Demons all over the top tables this year, I would be surprised if WotC didn't commit to printing the "Sphinx Baneslayer" sometime soon.  But then again, the fear of blue power runs strong, and they may not feel comfortable pushing a blue creature as far as they are willing to push other colors.  If or when they do make the Super-Sphinx, I hope they grant it all the stuffy pride and dignity that a super-powerful, flying, bearded, human-headed feline quizmaster deserves.


Good stuff. Now I'm by Leviathan at Tue, 11/26/2013 - 20:09
Leviathan's picture

Good stuff. Now I'm reconsidering which sphinxes I should have put in my Commander deck...