Brewing with Keywords

Fate Reforged is finally upon us—and if you want to brew with the new cards, Standard is where you want to look. In general, Fate Reforged seems to be a little less powerful than previous sets, such as Khans or Theros, but there are a lot of cards that can change that. Many cards in Fate Reforged have a high ceiling, even if their raw power level is not too impressive.

Just take a look at this list of cards:

There are not really any cards on this list that make your jaw drop the way that Tarmogoyf or Wild Nacatl do. But many of these cards make you think. Is that good? Can that be good? There are so many unique or interesting things going on in this list that if, a year from now, you told me each and every card on this list had seen Constructed play, I wouldn’t be surprised.

As a brewer, isolating effects that have massive potential but may be missing the support or obvious application that the staples have is a great place to begin. With enough of these cards in a set, you will find something promising to work with. And while you might not always stumble upon the deck that breaks the format, you learn a lot about the format that other people might not know.

This is important because you never want to feel like time spent brewing was time wasted. There is always something to learn or take away. For example, when I brew a deck, I generally end up getting one or more of the following:

  • A great deck! Congratulations, you hit gold. These moments always make it worth it, but they are rare.
  • A new appreciation for a card or set of cards that you otherwise would never have looked at. Many times, the deck we are working on is pretty bad as a whole, but there are bright spots. I tried many lists with Glissa, the Traitor as the focal point before Grand Prix Orlando. The decks always felt clunky and relied too heavily on Glissa. I moved away from those lists before exploring ramp strategies, but a small Glissa package found its way into my final list. The deck was certainly not a Glissa deck and many games would never even see Glissa come up, but there were matchups where it would be the all-star and completely take over a game. Without having played with and experienced the power of Glissa previously, even in bad lists, I would have never even considered her as a Green Sun’s Zenith target in my ramp deck. (Kibler helped out here with a last-minute nod toward Glissa that convinced me to put her back into the deck).
  • Knowledge of a new potential archetype. Even when this archetype is not quite strong enough, you will know what the deck is missing or what the deck is bad against. This means that when the metagame shifts, or a new set comes out, you can know exactly what to look for to know if your brew is primed for competition.
  • Knowledge of the format. Learning why a deck fails helps to guide you toward things that succeed. This teaches you about what is important and valued within a format which translates into better and more coherent decks over time.
  • It’s fun. Duh!

All right, so clearly I am setting up to talk about some wacky card, so I might as well just get it out of the way now: Soulflayer. Delve is being talked about quite a bit from Fate Reforged, although most of the attention is aimed at Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Tasigur is a strong card, but unlike Soulflayer, it is totally straightforward. You get what you pay for. Its ability adds some variance to that a little, but much of the time you will take your 4/5 for a mana or two and be happy.

Soulflayer, on the other hand, is a card you almost can never take at face value. It is a card you need to work for. Of course, we don’t know whether working for Soulflayer gives you enough of a payoff to be worth it. We can put in very little work and get a solid Tasigur just about every time, so how are we making Soulflayer good enough to warrant the extra time and effort?

Well, let’s just shoot for the moon, eh? At its peak, this is the card we end up with:

Flying, first strike, trample, vigilance, double strike, haste, hexproof, indestructible, lifelink, deathtouch, reach

Is that a card that we can win games with? Absolutely. Is that a card that can be beaten? Probably not. Crackling Doom might do it, but what else in the format even compares to that thing? Now, of course it is a pipe dream to expect that level of performance out of Soulflayer, but realistically, most of that text isn’t even needed to create a real monster.

In my opinion, Soulflayer wants three major components to be an all-star level card: protection, evasion, and stability. Protection in that we want Soulflayer to not be a sitting duck. Indestructible and hexproof are the desired keywords here and usually just one will do the trick, but both makes for a very resilient Soulflayer. Evasion is obviously any way for Soulflayer to reliably get through for damage. Some matchups will not require this, but often that flying or first strike is going to be a bigger deal than it may seem. Lastly, by stability, I am referring to a way for Soulflayer to control the game when it comes down. Lifelink is the biggest winner here as Soulflayer gets to play offense and defense while digging you out of any holes you fell into while working to get Soulflayer online. Vigilance can also work, although it is much less effective than lifelink.

If we cut the fantasy away and get a little more realistic, a 4/4 flying, hexproof, lifelink creature would almost certainly be worth 6 mana, and by default you will never spend that much. If we can aim for those stats or better, I think we can make Soulflayer worth the work—which is good, because we are definitely going to have to work for it.

Corralling Keywords

First, we need to take a look at what keywords we have access to in Standard. Remember that Soulflayer gains all of the keywords that any creature it delves away had. So in theory, the more keywords on a creature, the better. And finding creatures that complement each other is also big. Mantis Rider plus Sagu Mauler give us a 4/4 flying, haste, trample, hexproof, vigilance creature for no more than four mana. Those two cards have a lot of keywords with none overlapping (though they also happen to cover four colors of mana too).

Here are some of the notable creatures that are up to the task. We want to pay special attention to those creatures who have hexproof, indestructible, and lifelink, as those are easily the most important keywords.

The big card is Chromanticore. Chromanticore gives Soulflayer a host of abilities including evasion and two different types of stability (lifelink and vigilance). If we could add a form of protection to our pile with a Chromanticore, we would have everything we need to create the best creature in Standard. The best creature in combat, at least.

There are a few notables for protection as well. I noted some of the better Gods, as they give indestructible, which is rare. Hexproof can be found on some six drops like Narset and Silumgar, both of which chip in with evasion as well. Perhaps the biggest win for us is that Sylvan Caryatid brings hexproof to the party and that is an easy 4-of.


It isn’t certain that we should actively look to get these guys into the ‘yard or whether we should allow it to happen naturally with the flow of the game. In either case, looking at some of our options for doing so will help give us an idea of which direction to go. Notable discard/mill outlets include:

To be honest, this list is a little underwhelming. We can try to build something akin to Sidisi Whip, but I fear that we will likely end up doing it worse than Whip itself. This concept relies on it doing something that no other deck can and we should build around that fact.

Up first, I wanted to abuse the fact that there were so many interesting creatures with keywords. Not each of these creatures is something I would want in every matchup, but there seems to be at least one matchup where many of them are just game-ending. That sounds like the pattern that many toolbox decks look to use. Many strong but situational cards come together with tutoring to have reliable answers to any and everything.

In this case, we want to explore an abuse of keywords more than just having silver bullets for specific matchups. Luckily, a certain Disciple is up to the task of not only finding specific cards but also kindly throwing them into the graveyard for us where they wait to be delved away.

This is a creature-based midrange list, looking to clog up the board for long enough until it gets a huge, unstoppable threat online. Soulflayer may be the ultimate finisher, but merely casting cards like Chromanticore, Sagu Mauler, Sidisi, and Nighthowler will apply a lot of pressure. Keeping your Disciple alive for long enough to chain a few tutors together is going to be your biggest hurdle, with developing your mana not far behind that. Once the list gets rolling, it steamrolls an advantage to great effect.

And if you have never activated a Soul of Ravnica while owning a Chromanticore, you’re in for a treat!

I also wanted to try a more traditional Sidisi Whip-style of deck. While those lists generally look to cheat some giant creature into play via reanimation, we want to create a Soulflayer that can’t be dealt with. It should be noted that reanimating a Soulflayer is not exactly a combo, as it will never have a chance to gain keywords. Chromanticore is not the worst creature to reanimate though, so perhaps we can dip into both camps a little.

It is very possible that we want to be looking at Disciple of Deceit for this list as well, although we would need to craft our casting costs a little bit better beforehand. We have fewer means of protecting our Soulflayer, with only 4 copies of Sylvan Caryatid, 2 Pharika, and a single Silumgar. Still, you are pretty favored to find at least one of those effects—you just are not very likely to get both hexproof and indestructible.

There is an alternate route that does not work to fill its graveyard. Whereas Sidisi Whip is a graveyard-centric deck, we could combine the idea of a 5-color shell with a more aggressive, good-stuff strategy. I have worked with 5-color aggro decks many times in the past and with Khans giving us plenty of spicy options, we could have quite the powerful creature base.

Assuming the mana works (and I can in no way claim that this draft is the correct mana base), this list excites me. We did not have to break away from an aggressive midrange list very much to accommodate Soulflayer.

This is the list in which we are the least likely to get Soulflayer into superman mode, but also the list that needs it the least. Just delving away a Mantis Rider is going to make for a Stormbreath Dragon, which is quite good as it is. Once a God or Caryatid enter the mix, that creation is basically lethal, especially out of a deck that applies pressure starting early.

Ephara, Shaman of the Great Hunt, and our six Charms all allow us to dig for better mana, more gas, or missing combo pieces. The idea is that something like Mantis Rider or Siege Rhino can apply enough pressure and “distract” the opponent long enough for shenanigans to fall into place. And if the opponent doesn’t have the means to deal with those distractions, they just die to them as they are such strong cards in their own right.

Wrap Up

While the metagame settles down and people test their new toys, Soulflayer is likely to remain my favorite present from the new set. It’s a lot like Necrotic Ooze, which is one of my favorite designs ever, and as more cards enter the format in Dragons of Tarkir, the potential for Soulflayer is just going to grow. Right now, I imagine that most of the power in Soulflayer is in Chromanticore, but maybe even that assumption is a bit strong and we can get by through other means.

In any case, the concept has a lot of potential and is a lot of fun to get working. What shell do you think works best for the new keyword thief? Until next time, thanks for reading!

Conley Woods


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