Last time, we discussed the wonderful Magic decks that can be built by rummaging through boxes of commons and uncommons. I built one for my daughter, and she played it after school and at the local card store while I spent my time drafting. When I was drafting Khans of Tarkir every week, I became very fond of the Jeskai clan. Each clan in Khans of Tarkir has its own keyword, which is Magic-ese for a word that appears on cards and has a load-bearing rules meaning. The Jeskai keyword is Prowess. Prowess appears only on creatures. A creature with Prowess gets +1/+1 until end of turn whenever you cast a spell that isn’t a creature.
Here is one of my very favorite creatures with Prowess:
Not only does this guy get +1/+1 until end of turn whenever you cast a noncreature spell, he also gets lifelink, an ability that causes the creature’s controller to gain life points equal to the amount of damage he deals. For instance, if I am at 17 life and my 3/3 creature with lifelink deals damage, I go to 20 life. Gaining life isn’t usually a good strategy to pin your hopes on. Magic is essentially a game of resource management, and since you start with 20 life and 7 cards, cards are, by definition, worth more than life. I’m not sure how much life is worth an entire card, but it’s an awful lot. But creatures are different than one-shot spells because they stick around and continue to affect the game after you cast them, and life is a finite resource in Magic — running your opponent out of it while keeping some of yours is the most common way to win. A 3/3 (or bigger) lifelink creature is much more powerful than a spell that just gains you life. It can kill most cheap creatures in combat (and even some more expensive ones) in combat while padding your life total, and if it hits the opponent directly it causes a 6-point life swing (you gain 3, they lose 3).
I didn’t think much of playing Standard for my first few months back in the game. I was pretty content in the “We’ll head to the game store and I’ll draft while you play Standard or more likely I’ll drop you off at your friend’s house for a sleepover on the way” arrangement the kid and I had reached. But then, one fateful day, everything changed.
A brand new game store opened right around the corner from my house. And they were planning a GREAT BIG GIANT GRAND OPENING SHINDIG BLOWOUT FEST-STRAVAGANZA TOURNAMENT. First prize would be a box of booster packs and $100 in store credit.
And that tournament would be Standard.
Now it was time to build a deck of my own.
Competitive Standard decks can cost hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Here. Look.
For a variety of reasons, I wasn’t interested in building a $500-$1,000 Magic deck. The easiest alternative to that madness would be to duplicate the deck I built my daughter. It was a fine, respectable, noble deck, and we had made it better and better over the weeks. But I wanted to build something new, and since her deck was mono-red, I wanted to look in different colors for mine. Jeskai, my preferred draft clan, was white, blue and red. Strip out the red and you’ve got blue and white, a very favorite color combination of mine from Once Upon a Time. I knew what blue and white cards Khans of Tarkir offered, but Standard includes the last two blocks and the latest core set (Magic 2015), and I didn’t know much about anything except Khans. I started looking through common boxes and card lists of sets from the Theros block, the one that immediately preceded Khans of Tarkir, and I found a mechanic that I liked quite a bit, probably because it reminded me of Prowess: Heroic.
Some Magic cards have special text called ability words. Ability words are printed in italics and have no actual game meaning, but they serve as an anchor to show you how seemingly-unrelated abilities are, in fact, related. (Before ability words, players sometimes missed entire set mechanics because they weren’t labeled.) Heroic is an ability word — it tells you that when this creature is targeted by a spell, it gets some kind of bonus. What that bonus is varies from creature to creature, but that bonus always triggers on being targeted by a spell.
The mono-red deck I built my daughter had a couple Heroic creatures in it. Here’s a fine, upstanding example:
Now, as far as I’m concerned, +1/+1 counters are pretty great. They make your creatures permanently bigger (as opposed to Prowess, which gives +1/+1 until end of turn). I knew there were cool white and blue Prowess cards, and I found some very nice blue and white Heroic cards to add to the mix.
Know what both Prowess and Heroic creatures love? Cheap non-creature spells that target your guys. Feat of Resistance had been great for me in draft, so I figured it might work out well here. Theros had a better, cheaper card that did something very similar:
Prowess and Heroic seemed like they could be best friends if I glued them together with cheap, non-creature spells that targeted my guys, so I started fiddling around with something.
Poor Kid's Revenge 1.0
4 Battlewise Hoplite
4 Favored Hoplite
4 Phalanx Leader
4 Seeker of the Way
2 Jeskai Elder
4 Defiant Strike
4 Feat of Resistance
4 Gods Willing
4 Ordeal of Thassa
4 Triton Tactics
2 Treasure Cruise
4 Tranquil Cove
4 Glare of Heresy
4 Stubborn Denial
2 Ordeal of Heliod
2 Treasure Cruise
I was off to a pretty decent start on a playable, competitive deck. Triton Tactics seemed great in a deck with Heroic creatures, since it targeted two creatures at once. Jeskai Elder was my second favorite Prowess creature, and it seemed like she and Battlewise Hoplite would do good work filtering away useless cards, and she would do extra good work stocking up my graveyard to make Treasure Cruise nice and cheap. I wasn’t satisfied with the deck, though, mostly because I wasn’t confident in my very rusty deckbuilding skills. I hadn’t played Standard in a decade and I didn’t play during Theros block at all, so I checked online to see if there was some obvious take on this strategy I was missing. Lo and behold, this deck was on its way to becoming a thing. I read what Tom Ross was doing with the deck, and I tweaked mine and came up with this.
Poor Kid's Revenge 2.0
Let’s take a minute to talk about the power of tutoring in Magic.
Demonic Tutor is one of the most powerful cards ever printed. (It also prompted more than its share of mom lectures.) For the low, low price of two mana and a card, you can go get any card in your deck and put it straight in your hand. Obviously, this was too powerful, so a few years later, a cycle of “fixed” tutors appeared in Mirage.
These are fixed, right? Each color can get only a specific card type or two (despite all that blather on Mystical Tutor, under current rules it gets only instants and sorceries — interrupts and mana sources are instants now), and that card goes on top of your deck instead of right into your hand.
Wrong. Still busted. Well, at least the white and blue ones were. Creatures weren’t very good back then.
A sorcery (like Demonic Tutor) can be played only on your turn (there are more technical rules governing when you can play a sorcery, but let’s leave it at that for now). An instant (like any of the Mirage tutors) can be played pretty much whenever you want (again, not really, but basically), including on your opponent’s turn. So instead of putting the card directly in your hand on your turn, you can put the card on top of your deck whenever you want — for instance, right before you’re about to draw your card at the beginning of your turn. The “drawback” of putting the card on top of your deck instead of putting it right in your hand isn’t really a drawback at all, and it’s even an advantage sometimes.
Oh, and they saved the black one for later in the block.
Arguably even stronger than Demonic Tutor. An instant instead of a sorcery, one mana instead of two (and two life, but life doesn’t matter until you’re out of it — amazingly overpowered cards like Necropotence were made early on by naïve designers (and ignored early on by naïve players) who didn’t understand the Life-to-Cards exchange rate was absolutely not 1:1).
Even the red one, which didn’t come along for two more years in Urza’s Saga and appears to have a fairly significant drawback, is incredibly powerful.
Don’t even get me started on Entomb.
Long story short, tutor effects are very, very strong.
Which brings us to this little gem from Magic 2015:
The creature itself is nothing to write home about: a 1/2 for 3 mana is a pretty bad deal. But that tutor effect is worth a love letter or two. Lots of the powerful cards in this deck are Auras — Ordeal of Heliod, Ordeal of Thassa, Stratus Walk, Aqueous Form. With a few copies of Heliod’s Pilgrim, you can include just a couple of these in your deck and go get whichever one you want. Even limited to one card type and even tacked onto an overpriced little creature, a tutor is still a mighty, mighty thing that lets you build a toolbox of different options instead of filling your deck with four copies of the same few cards. It also lets you add one-of “silver bullet” cards like Singing Bell Strike to the sideboard (the cards you can swap into your deck between games of a match to try to improve your chances once you know what your opponent is playing) to deal with big scary monsters.
Venturing outside the commons box a little (and staying on the Aura theme):
To sum up:
1. Tutor up whichever Aura I need
2. Play it at a discount
I was ready. My deck was ready.
TO THE GREAT BIG GIANT GRAND OPENING SHINDIG BLOWOUT FEST-STRAVAGANZA TOURNAMENT!
I started off 2-0, but ended the night 2-3. It was the first Standard event I’d played in roughly a decade, and it was literally the first five matches I played with the deck. It was strong, but I wasn’t. I bashed off to a great start, then sputtered on play mistakes and mental fatigue. Still, it was good to feel like I was actually playing competitive Magic again, and it was pretty cool to see the level of competition in my new home store was very high.
For the first time in a very long time, I wanted to match that level of competition.