There have been countless articles written about the difference between playing to win and playing to not lose. From famous war generals to wanna-be professional types on LinkedIn, to our own Magic writers such as PVDDR, the topic is one of the most popular when discussing strategy for a competitive environment where people are jockeying for position. The difference can make or break a strategy, and like many small calculations that need making in Magic, knowing when to pursue either case can be the difference between winning and losing. Some decks are designed to play to win; the linear decks like Dredge and Burn are designed to secure the win or die trying. Other decks are designed to not lose, either literally by playing a card such as Platinum Angel or figuratively by creating such a game state that the opponent’s best course of action for the sake of their time economy and quality of life is to just concede the game. Let’s build the wall with today’s deck, Bant Soulherder.
Budget Modern Bant Soulherder by Darren Magnotti
Soulherder is the most recent in a long line of Bant Blink strategies, decks looking to abuse enters the battlefield (ETB) triggers by looping them on repeat with effects that exile creatures and bring them back into play. Originally, these decks operated at a glacial pace, often devoting their entire turn to recycling one of their creatures in order to draw a card or gain some life. It is 2022, however, which means that even the lowest of casual archetypes has gotten a tremendous shot in the arm. The deck looks to abuse its namesake, Soulherder, in addition to Ephemerate, to repeat some of the most potent ETB effects available. From drawing cards to removing permanents, the deck can really do it all (if “it all” refers to exactly those two things ad nauseam). Who needs to win the game when it’s so much more fun to make sure that the opponent can’t?
As mentioned before, Soulherder is one of those decks that tries its darndest not to lose the game. The primary way to accomplish this is by way of removing opposing creatures before they can deal significant damage. While this job is typically delegated to Reflector Mage and Skyclave Apparition, newcomer Aether Channeler has also stepped up as the total package utilitarian that this deck was after. Between the density of these removal effects and the abundance of blink effects in the deck, opponents should have a difficult time getting any of their own threats to stay on board. Ice-Fang Coatl, likewise, frequently acts as a removal spell/cantrip that players often underestimate.
Soulherder’s primary focus is to eliminate creature combat as a viable route to victory, while simultaneously burying the opponent in card advantage. Wall of Blossoms and Coiling Oracle both work toward this goal by offering themselves as chump blockers after putting additional cards in hand. Oracle being an occasional ramp spell also pulls a lot of weight in the early turns to get out in front of those fair decks who may become stuck on their mana development. The deck also has a relatively high curve, going all the way up to six and averaging out around three, so hitting those land drops each turn is crucial to the deck’s success.
With each of these creatures providing nominal amounts of value on one iteration of their ability, the deck also packs a couple of methods of netting a huge burst of advantage as well, namely in Yorion, Sky Nomad. As we’ve seen many other decks take advantage of, such as in the Four-Color Omnath piles, Yorion can come down in the later turns and completely shift the tide of a game by doubling up on all of the incidental value and turn a close lead in terms of card advantage into an avalanche that an opponent won’t be able to recover from. The deck’s primary win condition is to just chip damage via its slough of creatures, or clear the way for a gargantuan Soulherder attack once it’s accumulated enough counters and become massive.
Throughout the course of a game, the board state can become an absolute mess, especially if the opponent is able to get under the initial development denial plan. One of the most common circumstances while piloting this deck is that turn five or six comes around and there’s a board stall, where neither players’ creatures can attack profitably.
The Soulherder deck’s more recent innovation has been the inclusion of an “infinite” combo to help combat this problem, being a loop of Time Warp with Eternal Witness and Soulherder. Time Warp is cast to secure an extra turn, and on each of those extra turns’ end steps, the Witness is blinked to return the Time Warp for play on the following turn, thus creating “infinite” extra turns. From there, the deck can take over the game by attacking in with its flying creatures or getting a second Soulherder into play to start clearing out opposing blockers with any of the removal effects available. While this plan isn’t the main one, it’s typically beneficial to have an alternate strategy in your back pocket when building a slower grindy deck such as this one.
Soulherder is one of those decks that feels like it’s playing in defense mode for a majority of the game. The strategy really appeals to players who like to feel like their microdecisions matter while also not creating huge waves in the game.
Against today’s metagame, there’s a staggering amount of creature combat running around. From Murktide to Hammer and Crashcade, most players want to be turning creatures sideways in one form or another. The defensive nature of the deck plays quite well into a lot of the more popular strategies in the format at the moment. The game plan is also off-axis enough from what the rest of the metagame is doing that many players aren’t prepared to answer it either. Board wipes are relatively few and far between, aside from the occasional Living End, which means that these dorky creatures can just sit out on the battlefield accruing value over and over without much the opponent can do about it.
One strategy that does perform incidentally well against the Soulherder deck is the tribal lord-based plan, such as Merfolk or Humans, who can often disrupt to such a degree that the tide can never really swing back in Soulherder’s favor before it loses to chip damage. There’s also the general weakness to spell-based decks like Burn and control to take into account when tuning the list for a local metagame.
On the whole though, the deck is quite fun to pilot as there aren’t many decks in the format anymore that can feel like they’re doing nothing and then suddenly they’re doing everything. It feels similar to playing Commander, actually, as all of the pieces generally work well together and you aren’t left relying on any singular card as a linchpin.
Modern Bant Soulherder by AspiringSpike
As this deck upgrades, it gains access to a couple of key features, the most important being the evoke Incarnations such as Solitude. This deck operates on a tremendous card advantage disparity (meaning that it frequently has much more regular access to a greater number of cards than its opponent), which makes the “cost” of the Incarnations completely negligible. Noble Hierarch over Coiling Oracle is a much more reliable method of mana development, though not completely necessary. Other versions of the deck have even tried out Aether Vial as an early means of establishing mana advantage to mild success, so there are many routes to take the early turn plan.
Spike’s addition of Collected Company to the list is interesting, and gives the deck an additional axis to play off of, skirting the original plan of simply drawing more cards in favor of cheating the creatures its after directly into play. Aether Channeler carries just as much weight in this list as it does in the above, and is likely to be one of the best additions that this deck will have seen in quite a long time, given the flexibility that it adds to the strategy.
While Soulherder is easily one of the most off-meta of off-meta decks in the format, the strategy can be quite fun and is one that I’ve enjoyed since the days of Restoration Angel–Thragtusk in Standard. It’s a game plan that will see perpetual support, and can be an excellent introduction to the format due to its relative simplicity. I think that every player should at some point experience the joy of sitting behind 28 toughness against an aggressive creature deck.
That’s all for this one. Dominaria United is currently rolling out and beginning its influence on the game, and I’m looking forward to seeing which other goodies we can pull from it like we have here. Until next time, stay safe, play smart and thanks for reading.