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Breaking Through – Orzhov Love

Black/white anything has always intrigued me. The most famous incarnation of which was BW tokens. LSV was once seen taking second at Pro Tour Kyoto with the archetype, and it has made quite the resurgence lately. The deck can be played aggressively, but typically has some way to combo out the opponent as well. [card]Windbrisk Heights[/card] was the leading cause of this the first time around and these days everything from [card]Blood Artist[/card] to [card]Dark Prophecy[/card] fill that role.

But what about the other black/white decks?

Outside of tokens, black/white has not been the most diverse color pair. [card]Lingering Souls[/card] turned the pair into a powerful one, but it did not really help it to shed the tokens stereotype. Back in Pro Tour Austin some years ago, I played a [card]Martyr of Sands[/card] deck that featured the original [card sorin markov]Sorin[/card], well before he ever had white in his casting cost. That deck was appealing, but it wasn’t very good—Is there just nothing else?

Recently, the idea of black/white midrange sounded appealing to me. There are a lot of underplayed value creatures in Orzhov because they don’t cost one or two mana. [card obzedat, ghost council]Obzedat[/card] himself is quite the beating, but where does he belong? Or [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card]; when was the last time you saw him crawling out of the graveyard? I scratched a few notes down, hoping it would materialize into something, but ultimately, I walked away from what felt like a half-assed attempt at deckbuilding.

Earlier this week though, I stumbled upon the following deck from a recent MtGO Premier event and the Orzhov fire was lit once again:

Orzhov Control
Tenjum
MTGO Standard Premier – 8/18/13

[deck]Main Deck:
3 Desecration Demon
2 Disciple of Bolas
4 Geralf’s Messenger
3 Lifebane Zombie
3 Liliana of the Veil
2 Obzedat, Ghost Council
4 Restoration Angel
1 Sin Collector
1 Vampire Nighthawk
4 Doom Blade
2 Sign in Blood
2 Tragic Slip
4 Victim of Night
4 Godless Shrine
4 Isolated Chapel
2 Mutavault
3 Orzhov Guildgate
12 Swamp
Sideboard
2 Demonic Rising
1 Liliana of the Veil
2 Ratchet Bomb
2 Rest in Peace
3 Sin Collector
2 Underworld Connections
3 Vampire Nighthawk[/deck]

While I had never gotten around to formalizing my thoughts into a final deck list, it sure as hell did not have cards like Geralf’s Messenger in it. Seeing this list made me think about the BW midrange deck a little bit more. This was labeled as a control deck through many of the deck search sites, but don’t let them fool you. We have a deck with 21 creatures and a pair of [card]Mutavault[/card]s here… Does that sound like a control deck to you?

This list threw me off a little bit because it just did not look like it would be that great. The curve basically starts at three mana and is heavily overloaded there. The numbers, such as one [card]Sin Collector[/card] with no additional [card]Duress[/card], look strange as well. And yet, those comments aside, the deck did really well in a Premier Event, so there could be something here.

On the surface, the deck looks like it has some number of cards that belong in control and some number that belong in aggro. What decks have Geralf’s Messenger seen play in besides black aggro?

In those decks, Messenger was near the top of your curve. He was the reach you needed and a tough to deal with threat. If you look at the curve of the above deck though, Messenger is actually near the bottom!

The curve is nicely distributed in the shape of a near bell, but in a format as explosive as Standard, can you afford to rest everything on your three-drop slot without any acceleration and 0 nonland permanents that cost less than that? That is a trick a pure curve chart cannot show you with this list. All of those 2s are spells and both of those 1s are spells. If this were a control deck, no one would blink an eye, but it is a midrange deck looking to win with creatures.

Again, I was looking to expand on this list, but this was too rough. I generally don’t like to mess around with a deck I am unfamiliar with too quickly, but after a single game in which my opponent led with [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card] into [card]Gore-House Chainwalker[/card] and my first play was a turn 3 [card]Sin Collector[/card], I knew I had to make some changes. I wanted the deck to be a little more focused, but still versatile.

For example, during Pro Tour Montreal a few months ago, I ran four copies of [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card]. I don’t think anyone would tell you that Gloom Surgeon is an extremely aggressive card. In fact, the main purpose of it in that deck was to provide a blocker for all of the aggro decks in the format. That said, at the end of the day, the guy is a 2/1 creature. While that may not be the peak of aggression, it can deliver some beats on an empty board. [card]Doom Blade[/card] and [card]Victim of Night[/card] cannot do that.

Obviously Victim and Doom Blade are not intended to beat down, but imagine if this deck had a “removal” spell that could. I wanted to approach the deck differently, mostly looking at things from this angle, and came back with the following list:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Gloom Surgeon
3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
4 Geralf’s Messenger
1 Sin Collector
3 Lifebane Zombie
2 Disciple of Bolas
2 Desecration Demon
4 Restoration Angel
2 Obzedat, Ghost Council
1 Shadowborn Demon
3 Liliana of the Veil
3 Victim of Night
2 Doom Blade
1 Oblivion Ring
4 Godless Shrine
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Orzhov Guildgate
12 Swamp
1 Vault of the Archangel
Sideboard:
1 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
1 Liliana of the Veil
2 Oblivion Ring
1 Shadowborn Demon
1 Lifebane Zombie
3 Sin Collector
2 Vampire Nighthawk
1 Vault of the Archangel
3 Rest in Peace[/deck]

Like I said, I really just wanted to pull the deck into a little bit more focus. If you notice, we went from zero 2-drop creatures in our list to seven. Both [card]Gloom Surgeon[/card] and [card thalia, guardian of thraben]Thalia[/card] can defend, but they can also turn sideways and weaken an opponent for our larger Demons and Angels to take over later on. [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card], [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card], and [card]Rakdos Cackler[/card] alike do not want to see either 2-drop in play so I think we have already improved the deck’s matchups against aggro.

As we move toward the more expensive creatures, I actually didn’t mess with much. The midrange structure of the deck was its most attractive quality, so I wanted to keep the versatility and utility of the 3- and 4-drops together. With Thalia in the list, I did need to cut down on some spells, so you might notice some numbers shifted, but for the most part, I think the spirit of the deck remains intact. Shadowborn Demon has been impressive for me elsewhere, so I wanted to give him a shot in this list as well.

I mostly carried the same mana base over, but fit another white source in, as I thought it was lacking in that department. [card]Mutavault[/card] makes some amount of sense if you look at the deck as an aggro deck, but I don’t think it is optimal, especially in high numbers. Remember, we are playing four copies of [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] in this deck, so we can’t afford to goof around too much with the mana. I swapped out the remaining [card]Mutavault[/card] for a [card]Vault of the Archangel[/card], mostly because it seems like it would be the higher impact card when drawn as a one-of, but this could switch back with testing.

The sideboard is largely placeholder, but it has some functionality as well. When I work on a new deck, I don’t like to try to craft what will eventually be the real sideboard. Tournaments have so much context to them and you really need to have as much information as possible to have the best sideboard. The catch is that you never have as much information as possible until just prior to the tournament. Because of this, I like to have a good guide or shell of a sideboard with a lot of alternate choices ready to go so that I can be as informed as possible when finishing my board at midnight, but I do not like to have it pre-built.

You still need to test prospective sideboard cards of course, but you do not necessarily need to test them all as a single entity. My sweepers in my sideboard and my counterspells are for two different matchups, so it is not imperative that both be in my sideboard while testing against control. Instead, I can load up my board with a bunch of things that might be useful, or a more diverse range of options when the tournament I am testing for finally hits.

For example, while I was doing some searching for this deck, I came across a ton of cards that interested me, but I was uncertain of their power level in this deck or of their spot in the metagame. Check out this list of cards I considered:

[draft]Blood Scrivener
Cartel Aristocrat
Champion of the Parish
Imposing Sovereign
Serra Avenger
Nearheath Pilgrim
Skirsdag High Priest
Silverblade Paladin
Sublime Archangel
Tithe Drinker[/draft]

Many of these cards see so little play that it’s difficult to know how good they are right now. Is [card]Serra Avenger[/card] a bad card? I don’t think many would say it is. Is it good enough for Standard? Maybe not, but what is your confidence level when you say that? Ultimately, I left it out of this list, along with cards like [card]Silverblade Paladin[/card], because the double white in the cost was too big a price to pay, but if I ever reimagine the list and it does not have [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] in it, these are the types of cards that I want to try.

Honestly, a card like [card]Tithe Drinker[/card] is probably strong enough to see play in Standard, but where would it go? What deck wants that effect at that mana cost? Cards like that get swept under the rug and forgotten about. When you go looking for 2-drops for you BW aggro list, you come up with familiar ones: Thalia, [card]Cartel Aristocrat[/card], [card]Blood Artist[/card]—these are the cards that have seen play recently, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best for the job.

Wrap Up

I plan on experimenting more with this deck over the next few weeks as it has been a lot of fun so far. I should have a video set or two dedicated to this list coming out sometime soon, so check that out if you are interested. If you do see something you like about the list, I encourage you to mess around with it. There are so many possibilities and directions to go that I would be amazed if I somehow got lucky and arrived at the perfect one. Brewing is about experimenting. It is about failing ten times and succeeding once. And I love it. Thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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