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By: spg, spg
Oct 28 2008 4:21am
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Explorations #4 - Shards of Alara Deck Sketches
(Esper, Grixis)

Steve Gargolinski

Two More Shards

Last time I wrote about a few decks sketches in the Bant and Jund shards (you can read about those shards here), this week I'm going to take on Esper and Grixis.  Let's go!

Linear Esper

Etherium Sculptor
Master of Etherium

At first glace, I am not a huge fan of the Esper shard - it is just a bit too linear for my liking.  It seems like they're just holding onto the tribal theme from Lorwyn through one shard in the Esper block.  I understand there's some subtlety in making a powerful strong-linear/tribal deck, but sometimes it seems too much like Wizards is making the deck for us.  Pick out a linear and then just throw a bunch of the better cards from it into a deck and you're ready to go.  For my first shot at an Esper deck, this is exactly what I'm going to do.

How about something like this?

This deck is blue-white-black and follows a traditional aggro-control strategy.  Tidehollow Sculler is a fantastic fish style creature - a combination of Thoughtseize without the life loss and a throwback to the Nightmare-cycle, aggresively costed as a 2/2 for just WB.  Ethersword Canonist prevents any sort of combo or big-turn shenanigans.  Cryptic Command and Executioner's Capsule control the board.  And then there's Scourglass.

How scary is Scourglass?  Well that depends on how scared you are by the phrase, "Wipe your side of the board and leave mine in tact".  There isn't much out there more powerful than that.  If the Esper deck is strong enough then we might be back in a world filled with maindeck artifact hate just like those glorious days of everyone's favorite mechanic/deck:  Affinity.

Is this going to happen?  It's hard to say.  Scourglass comes down on turn five and doesn't fire off until turn six, which is potentially eternity depending on how fast the format turns out to be.  However unlike many similar effects from years past (Armageddon, Wrath of God, Obliterate, Jokulhaups, Nevinyrral's Disk) - Scourglass is not symmetrical.  The Esper deck gets to keep all of their permanents and then continue along its merry way.

Lots of control decks abuse Wrath of God (and other powerful, symmetrical effects).  This means that they generally avoid playing some of the strategies available in Magic in order to break the symmetry of these powerful cards.  In the case of Wrath of God, this means generally avoiding a deck that runs a high number of creatures.  When Wrath of God comes out, the effect will generally be much worse for your opponent.  It's not uncommon to see Wrath of God trade four or five of your opponents creatures for zero of yours - that's how to exploit powerful, symmetrical cards.

Wrath of God
Tournaments are won by breaking the symmetry.

Scourglass is a bit different than Wrath of God.  First of all it's slower and costs five mana instead of four.  Also it cleans out everything, not just creatures - the only thing that stays safe are lands.  The tradeoff with Scourglass seems much less restrictive to me - to break the symmetry all you need is to do is play a bunch of artifacts.  In years past this could have been a problem, but now you've got a whole shard worth of funky (and colored) artifact cards to build your deck from.  The major downside here is that it opens you up to a well-timed Hurkyl's Recall, but this is something that artifact decks have been able to deal with in the past if the metagame shifts in that direction.

There's only one card in Linear Esper that dies to Scourglass:  Tezzeret the Seeker.  This really opens up a lot of options while playing this deck, allowing you a lot of flexibility with how much of the beatdown you want to be.  There's no shame in emptying your hand of Capsules and Etherium Sculptors while taking some damage, firing off Scourglass, and then putting a lot of force on the board quickly afterwards.  On the other hand, you could also do something like this:
  • Turn 2:  Tidehollow Sculler
  • Turn 3:  Master of Etherium
  • Turn 4:  Etherium Sculptor, Master of Etherium
  • Turn 5:  Scourglass

This is very different from a deck that plays Wrath of God, for example.  Normally it takes at least a turn or two to build up offense post-Wrath of God, but with Scourglass you're able to attack the very same turn that your clear the board - assuming, of course, that your opponent is not playing heavy artifacts.  In the example above we're attacking with double Master of Etherium on turn six, which could easily be somewhere around 14 damage.

Profane Command + Sharuum the Hegemon is too good of a combo not to include, giving this deck some awesome late game power.  Kill your opponent's best guy, return your 5/5 to play, and get back a Master of Etherium on top of all that.  Tezzeret the Seeker is one final win condition.  Not only is he capable of tutoring for pretty much everything in the deck, but he also turns spare late-game Capsules and Scourglasses into giant monsters.

Profane Command

After writing about this deck a bit, I'm a little more excited about it than I had expected myself to be.  I'm still bummed about how linear it is, but you can't win them all.

Affinity Update

Affinity is still an occasional contender in Extended, even without Skullclamp or AEther Vial.

Due to the heavy artifact theme, Affinity is a deck that is easily hated out - but still finds itself a fairly popular and competitive deck.  One thing that Affinity has going for it is that Affinity loses pretty much nothing from the set rotation - the only cards that it really loses from the rotation are Cabal Therapy and Engineered Plague out of the sideboard.  Engineered Plague is less likely to be so important in the rotated metagame of weaker Goblin decks.

Affinity hasn't lost much, and it's gained a whole Shard worth of artifacts.  There's got to be something in there for Affinity, right?  The main problem with trying to find something new for Affinity decks is that it's so difficult to cut cards from the standard list.  The deck is so linear that only a small number of cards even have a chance of making the cut, and many of the current choices are so fundamentally powerful that it's difficult to find something stronger without changing the deck's strategy.  With all of that being said, there are a few cards that seem like they could potentially work their way into Affinity decks.

Etherium Sculpter

At first glance, Etherium Sculpter seems to have a high probability for addition into Affinity.  This 1/2 drops the mana cost of just about everything in the deck, turns Chromatic Stars, Spellbombs (another potential addition?), and Springleaf Drums into zero-drops, and helps the deck recover after Hurkyl's Recall.  The Sculpter gets bounced along with everything else, but once you're able to replay him it should be easier to deploy your hand.

It'll definitely take a bunch of testing to determine just how much (if at all) this card speeds up Affinity's strategy.

Ethersworn Canonist
Ethersworn Canonist seems like preferable sideboard tech against TEPS (or other combo decks) when compared to something like Stifle.  Depending on the metagame, the Canonist might even be worthy of maindeck consideration.  Another positive is that both this 2/2 the Etherium Sculptor are also artifacts, which means they can be on the receiving end of modular - a definite plus.
Master of Etherium

Master of Etherium stacks up reasonably well against Somber Hoverguard and Broodstar, two cards that it will likely be fighting with for slots in an Affinity build.  Master of Etherium has the advantage of only costing a single colored mana (something it shares with Somber Hoverguard) which is a major plus considering Affinity's wacky manabase.  Pumps up all of your Workers, Ornithopters, Frogmites, and Myr Enforcers.

Glaze Fiend
It's a major shame for Affinity's sake that this guy doesn't have haste.  I don't think that the card is good enough without it, but it sure would be fun to mess around with some sort of Affinity/Hurkyl's Recall/Glaze Fiend combo deck.
Salvage Titan
This card seems appealing, but I don't think Salvage Titan is very good for Affinity.  You can easily get him down on turn one, but I'm not sure if you really want to.  He does dodge most burn removal along with Terror, but you take a serious setback if he gets removed, bounced, or countered.  Six mana for a vanilla 6/4 is pretty terrible these days (Craw Wurm is sad), and the alternate casting cost is basically sending out an invitation for your opponent to three-for-one you.  Maybe this guy will find a niche, but I don't think Affinity is it.

I don't think that Extended Affinity decks are going to be changed very much by the cards from Shards of Alara.  Maybe something like this?

New Affinity
Steve Gargolinski - Future Extended Legal
4 Ornithopter
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Frogmite
4 Myr Enforcer
3 Master of Etherium
23 cards

Other Spells
4 Springleaf Drum
2 Chromatic Star
4 Cranial Plating
4 Shrapnel Blast
4 Thoughtcast
18 cards
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
2 Glimmervoid
4 Vault of Whispers
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Great Furnace
2 Tree of Tales
19 cards
Myr Enforcer

The only real addition to this deck is Master of Etherium.  I was tempted to run a few copies of Etherium Sculpter, but in the end I'm not really sure if it will speed up this deck or not.  Time will tell, of course.  Since I didn't provide a sideboard for this deck, I gave it a fairly diverse manabase - so make sure to tighten it up depending on what metagame killers you end up running.

Watch out for Viridian Shaman!

Time to move onto Grixis.

Grixis Cruelty

Cruel Ultimatum is an absolute beating.  This card is somewhere around a twelve-for-one if you manage to resolve it:

Target opponent sacrifices a creature = 1 card.
Raise Dead = 1 card.
Draw 3 cards = 3 cards.
Opponent discards three cards = 3 cards.
Gain five life = about 2 cards?
Opponent loses five life = about 2 cards?

By those calcalations we're talking about a twelve-for-one depending on how much you value the ten life swing.  How can you lose when you cast something like this?  It's obviously pretty difficult.  The downside of Cruel Ultimatum, of course, is the tough seven colored mana casting cost.  This may seem bad, but if we take a closer look it's a bargain:

Target opponent sacrifices a creature = (Cruel Edict) = 1B
Return a creature card from your graveyard to your hand = Raise Dead = B
Draw three cards = Concentrate = 2UU
Target opponent discards three cards = Fugue = 3BB
Gain five life.  Opponent loses five life = Drain Life for 5 = 1BBBBBB

So that's 7BBBBBBBBBBUU - nineteen total mana!  Seven is a bargain for all you get, huh?  Although I'm not really sure where the RR cost in Cruel Ultimatum comes from...

Cruel Edict
Raise Dead
Drain Life
The many components of Cruel Ultimatum.

Patrick Chapin posted a variation of the strong Five Color Control deck that incorporates Cruel Ultimatum:

Seems like a lot of fun.  If you want to check out this deck some more, I'd look up Patrick Chapin's articles.

Demigod Grixis

My favorite card in Standard that intersects with the Grixis shard is Demigod of Revenge.  This card is just about as good as it gets for five mana.  Five power, evasion, and haste would be solid enough - but the Demigod has the ability to bring an additional five, ten or fifteen power along with him.  Think it's tough to block one 5/4 flying hate creature?  Try blocking three or four of them!

I decided to throw together a Grixis deck with Demigod of Revenge as a finisher:

Demigod Grixis
Steve Gargolinski - Future Standard Legal
4 Demigod of Revenge
4 Ashenmoor Gouger
4 Viscera Dragger
2 Sedraxis Specter
14 cards

Other Spells
4 Thoughtseize
3 Agony Warp
4 Incinerate
3 Infest
4 Blightning
3 Grixis Charm
2 Profane Command
23 cards
4 Crumbling Necropolis
4 Graven Cairns
4 Sunken Ruins
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Swamp
2 Mountain
1 Island
23 cards
Demigod of Revenge

Let's go over a few cards from Shards of Alara used in this deck.

I think that Blightning stacks up reasonably well to discard used throughout Magic's history.  It is certainly not as good as Hymn to Tourach, but it's probably as good as Stupor.  Blightning trades a random discard for a discard choice and three damage to your opponent.  If this spell could target creatures then it would obviously be amazing.
Agony Warp
Here's a pop quiz:  Which card most closely resembles Agony Warp?

A.  Sick and Tired
B.  Last Gasp
C.  Lightning Helix
Sedraxis Specter
This is a pretty cool, new look at Hypnotic Specter.  It's funny that Hypnotic Specter isn't really good enough for competitive play these days.  Back when I started playing competitively every player learned a simple lesson:  if you see a Hypnotic Specter then kill it before it kills you.  Hyppie was one of the most feared creatures in the game.

I wonder if Sedraxis Specter is enough of an upgrade to see tournament play.  Both cards cost three mana, both have evasion, both cause discard.  Sedraxis has three power, Hypnotic causes random discard.  Sedraxis has built-in reanimation, able to get in for three more damage and a card even after your opponent manages to take the creature out.  Both Specters are held off forever by Bitterblossom.

As a side note, I have no idea why Sedraxis Specter costs RUB.  It seems like a straight up black card to me.
Viscera Dragger
Another cool unearth creature.  This card reminds me of Ichor Slick; instead of a single card combo that exploits cycling and madness, we get a single card combo using cycling and unearth.  Viscera Dragger gives our deck options: we get to choose between a card and a creature or two creatures.  After unearth you only get to keep the Dragger for a turn, but a 3/3 is typically enough to either take out a blocker or get three damage through.
Solid removal.  Doesn't kill anything in the deck other than Sedraxis Specter, and that guy has the ability to come back from the dead.  Kills level one and two Figure of Destiny, exterminates Kithkin, and at least triggers persist on Kitchen Finks.
Grixis Charm
All of the charms in Shards are awesome, and the Grixis Charm is no exception.  Removal, the ability to temporarily deal with troublesome permanents, and a finishing blow all in one.

This deck is full of disruption and strong creatures.  The game plan is to strip down your opponent's hand early with Thoughtseize and Blightning while playing out an aggressive threat like Sedraxis Specter or Ashenmoor Gouger to put the pressure on.  Infest, Agony Warp, and Grixis Charm control the red zone while your creatures and direct damage deplete your opponent's life total.  Demigod of Revenge comes into play to land the finishing blow.  If the game goes long then Profane Command becomes another powerful finisher - using Profane Command to reanimate a Demigod of Revenge is truly backbreaking.

I'd love to work Dusk Urchins into this list, but I'm not sure what to cut without doing some playtesting.  I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

One Shard Left

So far we've covered Bant, Jund, Esper, and Grixis - the only shard left is Naya.  Tune in next time to hear about some Standard and Extended deck ideas for Shards of Alara's green-white-red world.  I'm really enjoying this approach to a 'set review' and hopefully it's given you something to think about.

Thanks for reading!

Steve Gargolinski


by Rerepete at Wed, 10/29/2008 - 15:12
Rerepete's picture

I'm looking forward to your review of Naya

by Katastrophe at Wed, 10/29/2008 - 19:56
Katastrophe's picture

That says something about the average card strength in the Affinty deck if it can go all the way through its Extended life (almost there) without picking much up. Even other powerful linears like Faeries gain cards when they enter Extended.

I love the cost breakdown of the Cruel Ultimatum.

Unrelated to your article, I hate the way Wizards costed some of the SoA cards. The "mono black" specter is a perfect example. A lot of shards just got triple color spells for no reason other than flavor. Three colors of mana used to get you Doran or Mishra. Now it's like fashion statement.

by spg at Tue, 10/28/2008 - 11:14
spg's picture

Thanks for the feedback man, let me know if there anything you want to see more/less of in the future!

by Leviathan at Tue, 10/28/2008 - 09:43
Leviathan's picture

I really like this series of articles.  Keep up the good work!

Great that affinity still by Anonymous (not verified) at Mon, 09/07/2009 - 10:44
Anonymous's picture

Great that affinity still gets covered :-)

-Casual Affinity fan saying thanks