Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Great Wall of Ravnica

Have you all read Game of Thrones?

One of my favorite images in the book (I’ve only seen one episode of the show) is that of the Wall.  The Wall is an impregnable slab of stone hundreds of miles long in each direction, disappearing into the bitter, icy wind of the North.  It’s quiet, it’s imposing, but most importantly, there was a reason it was built.  No one would go to the trouble of building a thousand-foot high wall unless there was something worth keeping out, right?

Historically, walls have been essential to the survival and preservation of people living inside them and preventing entry by those outside.  The Great Wall of China spans for some five thousand miles across China, providing protection and isolation for one dynasty or another throughout its multi-millennial history.  Walls serve one singular purpose; if you can’t get through, you can’t win.

People have been making defender decks for a long time; Rolling Stones, Defender-matters cards from Rize of the Eldrazi…it’s been a subtheme that has been offered in a few cards here and there over the last few years, but it has always been given as an option just for casual players who like to stay out of the red zone. 

Return to Ravnica gives us two and only two cards that care about defenders.

This isn’t very many, but each ability scales very well in.  As a bit of a brew, I wanted to toy with the idea of these two zero power creatures actually winning you the game. 

Defenders have the fatal flaw of doing nothing if not, well, defending, so I wanted to strive to use defender as an advantageous static ability.  Perhaps utilizing only occasional defenders, or figuring out ways to make the quantity of creatures dependable and sturdy enough to do something useful.

Control is not my usual style, so before I get in to the deck much more, let me show you a decklist.  I would say it’s a rough draft like I usually do, but I have pored over these numbers and I finally feel confident this is the best configuration.

…So we’ll call it a second rough draft.

The Great Wall of Ravnica

Creatures (24)

4 Axebane Guardian
4 Fog Bank
3 Hover Barrier
3 Gatecreeper Vine
3 Doorkeeper
2 Ludevic’s Test Subject
2 Manor Gargoyle
2 Ogre Jailbreaker
1 Tree of Redemption

Spells (14)

2 Golgari Charm
3 Dissipate
1 Increasing Confusion
2 Devil’s Play
1 Bonfire of the Damned
4 Forbidden Alchemy
1 Vraska, the Unseen

Lands (22)

4 Hinterland Harbor
2 Drowned Catacomb
1 Woodland Cemetery
4 Forest
4 Island
2 Steam Vents
1 Swamp
1 Golgari Guildgate
1 Izzet Guildgate
2 Rakdos Guildgate

Sideboard (15)

3 Grave Bramble
2 Negate
2 Redirect
1 Garruk, Primal Hunter
1 Stuffy Doll
1 Witchbane Orb
1 Sever the Bloodline
1 Slaughter Games
1 Psychic Spiral
2 Bonfire of the Damned

Deck Tech – Creatures

Before I begin, let me just say that this is probably the single-most unorthodox deck I think I’ve ever built.  Being on the mill plan is not my idea of a good time, but this deck seemed quirky and uniquely synergetic enough to make that win condition exciting.  The overarching idea is to invalidate their creatures (because I can effectively block/mitigate their effectiveness), counter or destroy the stuff that matters, and finish them in a flurry of milling.  Also, before I get into the creature, I’ll add that it feels weird to be playing a control deck with twenty-four of them.

Axebane Guardian and Doorkeeper

Cheap and effective early game blockers, these are the engines of the deck.  Each card can function well independently, but this Druid and Homunculus work best while holding hands, providing a lot of mana to dump into this milling machine.  The Guardian is the stand out from this.  Being able to produce impressive amounts of mana in any color can power out a plethora of game-winning cards, which we’ll highlight below.  The fact this produces any combination of colors is also relevant, as you’ll notice by the mana base.

The Doorkeeper is a relevant body, being a Kraken Hatchling that serves to mill your opponent (so, like a Hedron Crab, I guess), and being able to stop a lot of early ground game for just 1U.  It’s going to be a while until you use the activated ability, but they work very well in multiples, allowing an efficient mill each turn if they don’t cast into your counterspell.  This deck is not going to win quickly, but it will win, and these guys (well, this guy and this eye) will get you there.

Fog Bank

It’s OK if you don’t remember this card from Urza’s Block.  It’s a little cloudy.
Fog Bank, the cheap wall of walls, is an awesome way to stop any non-trample threat forever.  Deathtouch?  Don’t care.  Lifelink?  Don’t make me laugh.  This will pretty much garner a kill or burn spell, which will keep it from hitting you or, more importantly, your relevant defenders.  Hover Barrier, a late edition, does the same thing while soaking more trample damage and being more resistant to burn.

Reminds me of HAL.  Or GLADYS, with that little orb.
Gatecreeper Vine

You’ll notice the suite of Gates I included, and that was intentional.  This Plant, a defender, also helps fix your mana by replacing itself with whatever color you need.  This deck produces four colors, and having access to them is important.  It’s good to hit your land drops on time, too, so that you stay on par with your opponent.  Running only 22 lands in a deck that runs as expensively as it does needs this kind of guy.  He won’t block very well, but he’s basically lands 23-25, so I don’t mind too much.  Hopefully there’ll be enough defenders around to do its blocking for it.

Ludevic’s Test Subject

Remember this guy from Innistrad Limited?  A great mana sink and an alternative win condition, this card will add to the defender count while also being able to transform into a potent and relevant threat in fairly short order.  A 13/13 with trample will pretty much do it.  It’s possible you’ll only flip one, but having more cheap defenders seems acceptable for this kind of deck.  Just side him out if they’re playing bounce.  Also, as a note, I’m not worried about Tragic Slip against this deck, as I’m just not killing a lot of his stuff.

Manor Gargoyle

Is he a manor something else?
I’ve won a lot of drafts with this guy and 39 other terrible cards in Innistrad Limited, and I run him on MTGO, as he just seems to be a good five drop for any deck (I don’t have a lot of cards on there).  Here, though, his defender ability is an asset, and his ability to crash in when needed makes him a versatile and solid enough clock.  He dodges sorcery based removal, too.  I like a couple of him in here to fill that role.  Indestructibility is an underrated ability, too, and he can just stop ground dudes forever, too, while not being susceptible to Murder, Dreadbore or Burn.  

Ogre Jailbreaker

This guy is admittedly not very exciting.  He is a powerful dissuader of attacks on 4 mana, stopping all but the most efficient of creatures.  With five Gates in this deck and three ways to find him though, he can also attack fairly well and will often do so.  He’s just another ground clogger with defender and Gate synergy.  

Tree of Redemption

I love trees in non-Forest art.
My one stopgate for ground trample and as an anti-burn card, he fills a lot of roles, most of which I’ll probably never know until they arise.  Mr. Big Butt here can stop even the most outrageous ground pounders, stuffing Armada Wurms, Grove of the Guardian Tokens and even a large Craterhoof Behemoth.  I foresee him being a relevant card on four mana, and he’ll generally stop ground games completely.


Golgari Charm

Actual awesome.
This versatile Charm is the right choice for this five color deck.  It can thwart Oblivion Rings, Bonfires, Wrath effects, and weenie decks.  Even a turn two Charm to kill off three opposing 1/1s is probably the right play.  As this deck relies on having a lot of creatures out to work effectively, a safety net on the cheap is very important maindeck.  It can also save you from a lousy combat or just shrink a scrawny team to death or safe combat levels.  The Charm is a nice card to have in your hand, plain and simple.


I forgot this card existed.  Why would you ever  cast Syncopate?  What do you HAVE to counter on two?
In a deck that doesn’t interact a lot with the other side of the board, Dissipates are necessary to save you from shenanigans and actual threats.  As you can clog the ground (where most decks do their fighting), you want to be able to stop the threats you can’t deal with; planeswalkers, sweepers, win-con spells, or even to deflect another counterspell.  Dissipate will be a bit hard to cast in a four-color deck, but it’s power level as a counterspell, seems very relevant. 

Increasing Confusion

I wonder if they told Dan Scott to "create a lightning ingrown hair of cavalcade diaspora."
One of my win conditions, this with the Axebane Guardian can produce some intimidating mill power, and especially after it’s flashed back.  Even with X at 10, that’s half their library after two casts.  Hitting a hilariously high X is what this deck is really about, but with help from the Doorkeepers and any draw/manipulation they’ll use naturally, this should seal the deal.

An alternative win condition, Devil’s Play has the disadvantage of being consigned to do the entire work load in damage.  Because I just won’t be hitting them that hard (if at all), Devil’s Play has to take them from twenty to zero.  That being said, if you imagine their library is at 40 by the time you get to milling them seriously, then this hits basically twice as hard as an Increasing Confusion when cast from your hand.  Devil’s Play also has the ability to flashback naturally, meaning if the first shot didn’t do it, the second one will.  It’s important to have two win conditions in case one is shut down, say by Slaughter Games or specific sideboarding against either condition.  I wanted to be sure and keep this deck’s portfolio diversified. Bonfires obviously do a lot of work and fill in to just keep their board clear in case I still get overwhelmed.  It should also be pretty easy to hard cast it for a high value, too.

Don't get me started on the FNM art.
The best card selection spell I could think of, this card helps me dig deep into my deck after not countering a spell to make sure I stay on time with lands, find a relevant answer or find the win condition I need.  The four copies collectively let me dig through over half my deck (32 cards if each is fully cast), giving me a ton of reach and making sure I’ve always got gas.  Most of my win conditions can be cast from the graveyard, so I’m not so concerned about pitching some of them.  This card has been kind of forgotten since the days of Esper Control, but don’t forget it’s there.

Vraska, the Unseen

Oh, I see her.
This snaky lady does everything that the rest of the deck can’t.  The medusa will do two things, depending on the matchup.  In most aggro or midrange matchups, I’ll only cast her when there’s a threat to deal with and -3 her right away.  I’ll build her up turn after turn to deal with new nonland threats that emerge.  In control matchups, I imagine playing her out on curve and building her up for Assassins; on a board devoid of creatures, those Assassins can come rumbling in, effectively dodging spot removal.  Golgari Charm regenerates them in case of a board wipe, too.  She’s a one-card threat, and I don’t think we need a second one (nor do I have a second one.)


The lands look a little messy, but it comes out about right.  Blue and Green are the most important colors, so they’re highlighted, while I play singletons of most Gates (except Rakdos, as they’re the biggest stretch) to round out the fixing.  There should be enough basics that Gates are the only lands that will ETB tapped.  Although I’m usually excited to include a utility land, I just can’t afford it here; the mana is too tight.  If you’re curious, here is the source count for each color, something I considered when building this deck to make sure each color was appropriately accounted for.  This doesn’t include Axebane Guardian, as Birds of Paradise and friends are unreliable mana sources (they can get killed a lot more easily.)


The sideboard was the hardest part of this deck, I think.  I had to cut and add and slim and trim this list down from about 40 powerful choices, so I’ll highlight each choice.  Although Grave Bramble obviously shuts Zombies down, it’s also a highly-efficient fighter that can effectively stonewall the format’s 3/3s.  It seems important in the creature-heavy matchups where I actually have to kill the creatures attacking.  Negate is basically more copies of Dissipate in a control mirror, nothing much to say here.  Redirect, on the other hand, plays a valuable role against targeting decks.  Bonfire, an inherent weakness of this deck, can be turned against an opponent for UU, or you can turn a targeted burn or kill spell against an opponent’s creatures for a slick two for one, or you can reroute the opponent’s game winning crusher or even steal an Aura.  It also counters a counterspell. 

The sideboard also features several singletons.  Garruk, Primal Hunter, much like Vraska, is a one-card threat.  He can make a lot of Beasts or Elementals (after a while) and he does allow you to turn your big guys (see Ludevic’s Abomination) into massive card advantage.  Constantly adding good size creatures to the board for free is never to be underestimated, and Garruk fills the job nicely.  His mana cost makes me nervous, I will admit.  Stuffy Doll is also great against the ground game and is inevitability incarnate, albeit slow inevitability.  It punishes burn decks too and, if they can protect themselves from Devil’s Play, I’ll just shoot the Doll.  Witchbane Orb protects me from burn, mill, discard, Curses, and other “target me” shenanigans.  This basically sideboards in against every deck with less than 25 creatures.  Slaughter Games is a great anti-control card for cards that I have a lot of trouble beating, like Terminus (my regeneration doesn’t doo much there), Entreat the Angels, or a massive planeswalker.  Psychic Spiral and Elixir of Immortality are anti-mill cards, but they also serve a couple utilitarian uses.  Psychic Spiral can turn my tall graveyard of Alchemy dross into an actual “mill you for thirty” card.  Both the Spiral and The Elixir can be used to save your graveyard from theft or shenanigans, too, while the Elixir also provides a nice cheap life gain when I just need that extra turn.  Sever the Bloodline provides an effective and efficient removal spell that just deals with the creature.  In a deck full of defenders, a lot of creature decks will just commit more threats to the board to try and outnumber me.  This lets me hit the most important one and all of his friends.   Twice.  A third Bonfire comes in during heavy creature matches; we all know how good it is.

I wrote this deck tech before ever sleeving up a card for it, but I feel like this is the right way to build it.  I’ll be testing it this Friday night, so we’ll find out then if it was worth the trouble!  As a prediction, I feel that the clock will be my biggest opponent.  At Something2Do, we only have 45 minutes a round.  That allows about 15 minutes a game, which is pretty slim for a deck that wants to deck you.  That means I’ve got to play tightly and quickly, using my opponent’s turn to plan my next move and decided how I want to react based on his board state.  This deck will require a lot from a player, and I hope I’m up for the challenge.  

I was able to scrounge up the cards I was missing and played the deck as listed above.  I was so excited to give the deck a whirl.  The crowd filed in heavily, giving us about forty people that night at Something2Do.  I sleeved up in fresh new teal Ultra Pros and sat down after the first round was called. 

Round 1 – Daniel (USA Miracle)

Daniel, one of my preferred opponents at Something2Do, sat down with a big smile, ready to get started.  Politely we cut each others deck and I explained that this was a super-brew, and I was excited to see it in action.  I played a Fog Bank or two and he Terminused pretty early, so I knew I’d need to save my Dissipates in hand for those.  As I reassembled my board, he would take a bit of time on his turn.  He eventually cast Entreat the Angels on 1 and made a 4/4.  I Devil’s Play’ed it away and started bashing with my Gargoyle.  Over the next two turns, he basically did the same thing.  I flashed back the Devil’s Play while building up my unhatched Test Subject.  Once it cracked open, he wasn’t able to stop it, missing the Terminus or Azorius Charm he’d need to stay alive.  I sided in all the control hate I had, but I got an even better start that time.  After smacking him with a quickly hatched Abomination, a Devil’s Play finished him off.

1 - 0

We were done very quickly; I was worried the deck would take forever to get going, but I did get nice, solid draws each time. 

Before long, it was time for the second round.

Round 2 – Ben (B/G Scavenge Zombies)

Ben, a character I’d seen before, sat down, excited to play his Zombie brew.  He took a mulligan and kept his next hand, and I kept a solid seven.  He cast a turn 1 Gravecrawler, smacked me on turn 2 and followed it up with a Slitherhead and a Diregraf Ghoul.  By turn 3, he had five creatures out to my one.  My Fog Bank was holding off his biggest guy, but I was hemorrhaging life.  After he resolved a Geralf’s Messenger and put me to a precarious 2, I found some Fog Banks and Hover Barriers to keep him quiet.  Putting Manor Gargoyle in the red zone and pumping my Test Subject helped me crawl out of the hole.  He had played out his whole hand and was living off the topdeck, which was giving him land.  The Grave Brambles were in my hand before the second game was over.  That, Slaughter Games (for the Messenger), the extra Bonfires, Garruk, and Sever came crawling in.  I was fortunate to resolve a Bramble within a couple turns, and his once-again aggressive swarm slowed down to a trickle.  I resolved Garruk and began dominating the board.  A large Devil’s Play got it for me this time.

2 - 0

I was thrilled to beat such an aggressive deck.  I needed about 18 Fog Banks that time, but what can you do.  I was elated when going into the third round.

Round 3 – Joseph (W/B/G Aggro)

Joseph, another familiar opponent, was ready to do battle.  A very nice and polite guy, I was put at ease while riding the 4-0 high.  In the first game, he was able to assemble on-time Loxodon Smiters; with a pair of pachydermsand a Garruk Relentless to punch my Fog Banks, he put me to dead very quickly.  I sided in all my anti-aggro cards, namely the extra Bonfire, Garruk, the Sever and Stuffy Doll while chucking all but one counterspell aside.  I was able to overwhelm him with a nice curve and perfect Bonfires.  Game two was quickly mine after I flipped my Subject.  Game three was much more grindy.  He resolved Thragtusk after Thragtusk, putting himself to a very lofty life total.  Although he couldn’t really crack through me, he was holding me off very well.  As we came near the end of time, I cracked Vraska for three Assassins, seeing that as the most likely win condition.  He flashed back his Sever the Bloodline to deal with them, as I’d forgotten he had one.  Shortly before time was called, I topdecked two Bonfires, one right after the other, slimming his near-40 life total to manageable levels.  My Devil’s Play was nowhere to be seen, and on Turn 3 of time, he resolved two Centaur Healers, bringing him to 13.  I had a Bonfire in hand, but it would take every bit of mana to kill him.  As soon as he passed to my turn 4, I revealed the bonfire from my hand and looked to tap it.  I ended up producing 23 mana for an X=11 Bonfire.  The crowd ooh-ed and ahh-ed for a moment.  Joseph looked very nervous, but he didn’t scoop.  Completely exhausted, I swung my lone attacker, a Ogre Jailbreaker, into his empty board and two life.  He held up a finger, tapped a black source and called “Tragic Slip!”  He revealed the last card from his hand.

My jaw fell open; he’d survived three Bonfires, two of them being Miracled, and he even had the on-time answer for my game winning attack. 


Because we’d cut to Top 8, any 3-0s could just draw the final round, which is the luxury I had desired.  However, I now had to win my last match.  And it was going to be hard.

Round 4 – Bobby (Four-Color Control)

Bobby, our former State Champ, is a very high level Magic player.  I was lucky enough to win a match against him once, but he was playing Battle of Wits.  This time, he’d been playing a real deck.  Still, I had put a lot of faith in my own pile, and I wouldn’t let Bobby’s intimidating record get me down.

In game one, he flooded, and I bashed in for a large amount.  There wasn’t much to say about that game.  He cast Jace and Tamiyo, but I had too much stuff for him to stop.  In game two, I held a solid lead, but he stabilized and flipped the tables with Nicol Bolas and Vraska coming to his aid.  He quickly dominated the board, stole my flipped Abomination and killed me.  In game three, I started with a strong six, sporting two Devil’s Play.

Then he cast a turn 3 Slaughter Games calling Devil’s Play. 

This crippled my hand, and I never recovered.  He made a bunch of Thragtusks and took the game shortly after time was called.


I was gravely disappointed by the final two rounds; this deck had what it took to get there, but it was a little too slow and unresponsive when I needed it to be tight.  I feel confident that I didn’t make any glaring play mistakes, but there were probably better lines of play at certain points in the game.  I really just didn’t like round three – losing to a lucky Tragic Slip was the pits, considering he would have been dead soon enough with more threats in the deck to come and with me in firm control of the board.

I came in 13th out of about 38 players and got one prize pack of M13, which contained a Faith’s Reward.  That got me thinking about that card…

The mill plan was the greatest flaw of the deck.  Even with four Increasing Confusions, burn was still the better plan.  It handles creatures, it compliments the more aggressive wings of this deck, and it is more consistent.  I boarded out my singleton Confusion in every match, even against control, in favor of more burn and creature control.  I still like the Doorkeepers – they’re relevant, Centaur/Zombie stopping bodies with a fine mana sink.  I occasionally used them on myself in an attempt to “draw” an Alchemy or Devil’s Play. 

Axebane Guardian was as awesome as I thought he’d be.  He often produced three or four mana within a couple turns of being played, and few people went for him; his innocuous appearance helped keep him off my opponents’ radar.  Most times I’d take him with Alchemy over more intrinsically powerful cards, even over a Vraska once.  Speaking of which, Vraska was excellent; she did exactly what I wanted.  I even popped her once just to make three blockers.  Garruk was also outstanding; he pulled his weight very well, providing a steady stream of threats or blockers.  This guy is good, and he’s awesome in the current metagame.  Play him.

||D || ||\/|| ||D
The deck was originally four colors, and I don’t regret cutting white.  Although able to produce all five colors, the consistency offered turned out to keep the deck strong. 

As an afterthought, after going home and looking through my binders, I saw a card that I’d completely forgotten for this deck.

Now THAT’s a win condition!  I can't believe I forgot about it!

Unlike with a lot of my decks, I am still very excited to play this one and will do so again as soon as I can.  It still has room for upgrades, but I am so far very pleased with this first attempt.  It has the toughness and tenacity to survive a persistent onslaught of creatures, but it was plenty of reach and a good amount of gas even into the very late game.  This is a winner, and I’m looking to improve it more, maybe even taking it to a more serious tournament.

I hope you enjoyed the Great Wall of Ravnica.  It’s a blast to play, and the interactions and synergy make my heart sing.  I’m no Johnny, but this is a combo-ish deck I can support.

Next time, I’ll be bringing you another crazy brew based around one of the worst rares from Return to Ravnica.  Come back next time and check it out!

Until next time, don’t forget to untap!

- Matt H

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