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Silvestri Says – ZendiKard Spotlights

 

Today I’ll be discussing the attempts I’ve made building around two cards in Zendikar and subsequent results. Take note that these were all built on Magic Online and made purely to try and beat the MODO metagame, which is surprisingly similar to the real-life meta at the moment.

Card #1: Pyromancer’s Ascension

As one forum poster once pointed out, ‘this card looks like it was made for the Japanese.” Sure enough, a few weeks after Zendikar hit the streets, we were looking at a Grixis control deck that got Pyromancer’s Ascension online via Ponder and Worldly Counsel and a heaping of spot removal. After the Ascension was turned on, the real fun began, as the deck could start taking multiple turns with Time Warp and Cruel Ultimatum twice in a single turn, effectively winning the game.

Now despite the absurd fun of the deck, I actually wanted to be able to beat decks like Jund and W/R Boros, and unfortunately this version of the deck wasn’t getting there. Why? The main issues with the deck had to do with the lack of action spells outside of Cruel Ultimatum and general mana issues when pressed by discard or [card]Goblin Ruinblaster[/card]. Most of the deck was geared around survival and search elements rather than actually taking control in the game, instead relying on reestablishing control post-Ascension or Cruel Ultimatum. Unfortunately, this was often a hit-or-miss affair, and the destruction of Ascension often meant game over even if the deck had reasonably controlled the board and gotten to its idea of an end game.

Now there are going to be two goals of any Pyromancer’s Ascension based deck.

1. Get Pyromancer’s Ascension online

Some people online seem to think that cutting Ponder and Worldly Counsel is the way to go. This is obviously a horrific idea and born from the notion that these cards don’t do enough, rather than noting they fix your mana and are one of the few easy ways to reach duplicate cards. The other thing this encourages is the use of 4-ofs in your deck. Now the initial reaction is usually to go 24 land and at least eight 4-of cards, but that isn’t necessarily the right call. Cards like [card]Mind Spring[/card] are amazing as 2-ofs but rather weak when you run the full set, even if you can trigger Ascension with that second one. Same goes for running a full set of maindeck [card]Pyroclasm[/card]; when the card doesn’t affect half the decks being played, you shouldn’t max out on it just because you wanted to run the card vs. Boros and Vampires to begin with.

2. Surviving long enough to abuse Pyromancer’s Ascension

Too many people think their job is done immediately after they get the Ascension online, figuring they have such amazing value from their remaining two cards that there’s no way they can lose. The problem is you can often die the turn on or after you get Ascension online, which means packing enough removal to live until that point and until you Cruel Ultimatum / Mind Spring / Time Warp them out of existence. This means running a sizeable amount of spot removal, because Day of Judgment rates somewhere between dog’s bollocks and cat poop at the moment and there’s no other worthwhile sweeper effects. For those thinking this is an obvious point, allow me to point you at Nick Eisel’s combo version of the Pyromancer deck.

Pyro-Warp

After testing the deck, I quickly realized it was impossible to beat Boros or Mono Red with any type of consistency. Jund with Maelstrom Pulse proved to be a similar problem, since the loss of Ascension means you won’t typically win until after turn seven. With the original build of the Japanese Ascension deck, the big problem was that after a while, you’d run out of relevant removal and ‘go off’ with Ascension, only to die before hitting the proper mana for Cruel Ultimatum.

So after a number of 8-mans with the Japanese deck and a lot of losses to Red decks, I tweaked a bunch and ended up with this version of the Grixis version of the Pyro Ascension deck.

As you can see, I made some notable changes to the original version which ran Jace maindeck along with far less removal. This version still isn’t strong enough against Jund for my liking, but it has a significantly better chance of beating creature decks of all forms than the original version did. To accomplish this I adapted the approach of simply sucking it up and making the infinite one for one trades control decks hate to make. Why? Because by making those in this deck, you set-up your mid and end game with Pyromancer’s Ascension and actually have card filtering to find Cruel Ultimatum consistently by turn seven.

Time Warp was quickly dropped from the deck when I realized it was winning games by just being a business spell and losing me infinitely more by being a virtual mulligan in the early game. Mind Spring accomplishes almost everything I wanted out of Time Warp, except I can use it to get back into a slow attrition game, while the only fair use I got out of Time Warp was as an extra land drop toward Cruel Ultimatum. The extra slots it freed up allowed me a few more anti-aggro slots as well. With this move of buying time and being willing to trade removal on a one-for-one level, the bounce aspects of Into the Roil and Grixis Charm became more appealing in dealing with non-creature permanents. Originally the deck had major issues dealing with any Planeswalker or random enchantment, but now it had options to at least buy time until your trumps were able to win in spite of the offending permanent.

Now this version of the Grixis deck had reasonable results online in the 8-man queues. I won just under half the ones I entered and made the finals of a couple others. The major problem was about a third of the time I would lose in the 1st round; dealing a major blow to the amount of profit I was collecting. This was what I had in my records at the end for the people playing this build:

Jund: 14 matches, 8 wins, 6 losses (5 ‘odd’ builds)

Boros: 6 matches, 2 wins, 4 losses (Goblin Ruinblaster in 3 that beat me)

Vampires: 4 matches, 4 wins, 0 losses (Always easy)

Naya: 3 matches, 3 wins, 0 losses (Always easy except for Purge on Ascension)

Bant: 2 matches, 0 wins, 2 losses (Impossible)

G/R Elves: 2 matches, 1 win, 1 loss

Mill: 1 match, 1 loss

Rather than being the fault of any one deck, often the deck’s demise would be at the hands of decks I simply wasn’t prepared to do battle with. I heavily altered the deck to be able to win the Jund and Red matches, while still being reasonable against Naya and Vampires. A deck like Bant however was a nightmare for me, having Negate for my Ascension and Cruel Ultimatum while containing a host of obnoxious permanents like Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Qasali Pridemage and Sphinx of Jwar Isle. Other decks like G/R Elves were close to unbeatable without Earthquake due to the numbers of dorks involved along with Garruk Wildspeaker and Nissa Revane.

The other problem was that it seemed I was largely beating incomplete Jund lists. Often I’d see people with Terramorphic Expanse in place of Fetches and some lacking Maelstrom Pulse*, instead replacing it with more anti-Jund and anti-Green cards, obviously far worse against me. Ultimately I think this version of the Pyromancer’s Ascension deck is playable, but needs something more to push the deck to the next level One possibility is that the right color combination hasn’t been stumbled upon yet, or that some Cascade concoction is the proper way to build the deck. At the moment I’ve been trying a RWU version of the Ascension deck that needs more refinement, but has been showing some promising early results. Updates will follow if success on MODO is achieved.

*The problem with cards like Maelstrom Pulse and Baneslayer Angel on MODO at the moment is that a set costs more than the rest of the deck. I’m not exaggerating when I say this either; the Fetches aren’t a cost prohibitive measure to those with even a mildly serious interest in Constructed online. Right now the ‘bad Fetches’ Scalding Tarn, Misty Rainforest and Marsh Flats can all be had for five a pop (Six, if you don’t want to wait in Classifieds), far from their real life prices, while Arid Mesa is only one tix more and only Verdant Catacombs costing between eight and ten tix. Baneslayer Angel is even more ridiculous, a set of which online would nearly cost me more than building both the Vampires and Boros deck from scratch.

4 Baneslayer Angel – 120 (if you scrape and scrounge infinite, maybe 110)

Vs.

12 Fetches: 60

4 Vampire Nocturnus: 32

4 Bloodghast: 16

4 Malakir Bloodwitch: 10

4 Ranger of Eos: 8

Bunch of commons / uncommons: 5-15ish if you aren’t lazy / draft at all

Total? 130 to 140 roughly

Oh and here’s my super sick economy tip of the year. Buy a MODO collection of Zendikar and redeem it. You’ll save at least 150 dollars just on the Fetchland values alone.

Card #2: Bloodchief Ascension

This was one of the more hyped cards in the set based on the potential it had for breaking the game open. As it stands, people have yet to unlock its sick potential, but I think we could be getting closer as time goes on. Unlike Pyromancer’s Ascension, which is actually quite easy to trigger with proper deck construction, this Ascension needs a bit more work for a payoff. Still, it seemed so simple on paper that I immediately whipped up something and threw my hat into the ring. My reasoning was that there was no way this card wasn’t nutter butters. Oh how wrong I was.

// Creatures

4 Vampire Nighthawk
4 Plated Geopede
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Vampire Lacerator
4 Goblin Guide
2 Manabarbs
4 Burst Lightning
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Blightning
4 Bloodchief Ascension
5 Swamp
5 Mountain
4 Dragonskull Summit
3 Marsh Flats
1 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn

The deck definitely isn’t perfect, but the idea was what everyone’s initial inclination was. Shove it into an aggro deck that has aggressive drops, some with evasion, along with burn, and profit. At first times were good, I won an 8-man right off the bat and made the finals of another one. Then I dropped three straight in the first round all to Jund. Whoops. I tried one more time and won another 8-man, but only because my opponents made game losing mistakes against me every round while I simply hit the Derf button on MODO and won.

From this initial deck and 8-man play I learned about the three major hurdles facing any Bloodchief Ascension deck.

1. Getting Bloodchief Ascension active (Preferably without running a bunch of burn)

Here’s the problem with the concept of running a bunch of cheap guys and expecting them to get Bloodchief online. Every single person is prepared to deal with an early rush of Black and Red creatures thanks to Boros and Vampires. This also means the number of Celestial Purge being played has increased dramatically every day since Zendikar became legal on MODO. Purge is an especially crippling card since if they save it to take out Ascension or Manabarbs, you frequently have no reach left in the deck.

The other problem is if you rely on burn spells, it means you’ll be exchanging most of your hand for seven or more life and getting Bloodchief online with very little to trigger it with. Obviously the dream scenario is that the opponent will be at a low enough life that this isn’t an issue and it shuts off many spells from their deck while making your topdecks insane. In reality it rarely works out that well and it creates situations where you get blown out because someone topdeck Maelstrom Pulse or used Tendrils of Corruption and Malakir Bloodwitch to make the life-loss a joke. At this point the use of almost all your resources to get Bloodchief online hardly seems worthwhile.

2. Lessening the impact of using a dead early-game card in an aggressive strategy

Bloodchief Ascension is completely useless for the first three turns of the game. The punch line to the joke being that this is the optimal time to play the card in the first place. So if we’re willing to spend a card and mana on the first two turns to get this dead card out there, we need to make up for that somehow. Since I’ve tried early creature beats and saw that worked out less than optimally, I’m thinking about going in another direction here.

If you do want to stick with using this card in an aggressive plan though, you want to really focus on cards that have Trample, Flying or some other type of evasion. Even if it comes at a higher mana cost, one drops just do not get the job done the way they once would. You can only rely on them for the first counter on Bloodchief and everything after that will usually need to be fought for the old-fashioned way.

3. Abusing Bloodchief Ascension

After you get Bloodchief online, one might believe their work to be done and that the opponent will subsequently undo himself or a random Blightning will end the game. This is frequently false and more often than not I found myself to have at most one or two cards left and rarely was it a burn spell to maximize value from. Most of the time the opponent will still have enough life to cast two or three more spells before being stuck at two life or less. Since a deck like Jund actually tries to establish a board position, this can make it very difficult to get the last points of damage through before you simply die.

The one point Bloodchief does very well is it makes your terrible one drops into somewhat legitimate topdecks. If they can trade or can burn away an opposing guy, not only do you gain a better clock, but the opponent’s clock takes a major hit every single time. Unfortunately, the killer Bloodchief Ascension is really only done by hitting the opponent with something like Blightning, Mind Sludge or Cruel Ultimatum.

So how do you abuse Bloodchief Ascension? You can’t really, it’s actually a far fairer card than even Quest of the Pure Flame or Pyromancer’s Ascension is as far as finishers go. The best you can do is design your deck in a way that you can afford to hold back a trump which forces enough cards from the opponent to hit the grave that it kills them on the spot. Things you want to avoid are cards like Archive Trap or Tome Scour which only use are to kill the opponent after Bloodchief turns on.

I tried a few more builds of it, some that were suggested by friends / forumites and couldn’t get a build I liked. The card seemed to fit best in a controlling strategy, but the problem was the control decks didn’t need Bloodchief Ascension, so what was the point?

There is a bonus card I’ve been building around, Sphinx of Jwar Isle, and I’ll share that list with you now.

Accelerated Blue

I didn’t bother with a sideboard because the deck is still up in the air and I can’t test it on MODO until somebody loans me the set of Baneslayer Angel I need on there. The big draw of this deck is the ability to play turn two Khalni Heart Expedition and turn that into a turn five Baneslayer with protection or a turn five Sphinx with mana open to activate Capsule or cast Path / Purge. It also allows for much larger Mind Spring to hit and rebuild your hand with. Obviously it’s a rather poor topdeck, but thus far I like how it gives the deck the extra lands in play to execute a late-game strategy without being dead on turn ten. Of course, the rest of the deck is built in the traditional WU Control, meaning if the Heart’s proved to be a no-go, you could cut them and just add Elspeth and an extra counter or two for the same effect.

There are other shells involving Sphinx of Jwar Isle and I have to say, the card has impressed the hell out of me so far. It really kicks the crap out of Jund decks and is big enough to be a real clock if you can keep the opponent’s creatures in check for a few turns. I recommend him for any controlling Blue deck.

Well there you have it, one middling tier two deck, a failed concept and a new attempt to bring back Accelerated Blue. Even if these all turn out to be busts, hopefully you’ve learned something about the cards and the ideas that went into the shells behind each of them.

Josh Silvestri

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