Shields Up – How to Use Mag(ic) Deflectors

We're pleased to welcome Brandon Isleib, the Seedborn Muse of the Muse Vessel, to the Gathering Magic team! He, alongside his fellow Muses, will contribute to our new Tuesday feature: KiTT or, more formally, Kitchen Table Tuesday! Just like the art and tapestry featured on Vorthos Wednesday, Kitchen Table Tuesdays will always carry a cadre of casual captains covering the angles of kitchen tables!

How many of you have played the DOS game Scorched Earth? If you haven’t, drop the thing you’re doing after reading this article and go play it. You’re a tank aiming and shooting at opponent tanks; you get money for destroying them, and you use that money to buy weapons, shields, and so on. Besides fighting opponents, the terrain is varied, the weather is hostile, and you might be vulnerable on a hilltop while a foe is in a hard-to-reach valley.

The available shields do similar things—except the cheapest, the mag deflector ($10,000 buys two deflectors, whereas $20,000 buys three shields). While mag deflectors only protect the top of your tank, shots that come in over the top don’t touch the deflector; they’re repelled onto something else, whether that’s a dirt mound that isn’t you or an opponent who also isn’t you.

That matters when you’re facing higher-quality opponents, whose AI is often programmed to lob in a perfect arc on you. They don’t have to adjust anything; they just aim and get it right. A normal shield will wear down after enough hits like this.

A mag deflector won’t. Ever. And if you’re in a valley with a mag deflector, that uncannily accurate opposing tank will try to hit you the same way every time to no effect. The cheapest shield is often better than normal shields against a good opponent because it’s better at dealing with those opponents’ patterns.

I’m in the market for Magic deflectors—the best cards at disrupting the power on the way to your own game plan. You can keep your Emrakuls, your Snapcaster Mages, and your infinite combos; I intend to beat you with oddities. The cards that beat whatever’s overpowering your playgroup are often cheaper and more available than those power sources; you just have to know how to use them. The cheapest junk is often better than normal cards from a good opponent because it’s better at dealing with those opponents’ patterns.

Here’s a sixty-card deck list that costs about $15 and demonstrates the idea quite well:

For those of you who didn’t pay attention to Black in Coldsnap (all of you?), this is first and foremost a Void Maw deck. Void Maw exiles creatures that try to die, and you can pump it by sticking the almost-corpses into the appropriate graveyards. Plan A is to stick a Void Maw, cast Plague Wind, then let those exiled creatures rest in their proper places as Void Maw pumps +20/+20 on an empty board and has a good laugh about the incident.

Other plans involve exiling opponents’ graveyards for your benefit. Basal Thrull can accelerate you (especially into Plague Wind), it can provide free instant pump for Void Maw by sacrificing itself, it can chump block with a flipped Nezumi Graverobber, and occasionally, it can attack for 1. Viscera Dragger can find you more cards while showing up again later. Nezumi Graverobber as Nighteyes the Desecrator has extra value with Void Maw, as you have more control than normal over when a creature’s in a graveyard. Send a creature from exile to a graveyard to the battlefield with a Maw/Nighteyes combo and you’ve got a pump-and-reanimate cycle that gives few chances to respond.

Offalsnout gives similar versatility to Viscera Dragger; it’s a flash creature, it can exile a card from a graveyard, and evoking it to Void Maw gives you a Black Giant Growth effect. Carrion Wurm is undercosted beef; Basal Thrull enables it as a third-turn 6/5, and this deck nixes the drawback without difficulty.

Gravestorm allows for slow exile if necessary, but it primarily serves as a personal Howling Mine. Nihil Spellbomb cycles for {1}{B} (giving the deck eight cyclers to complement Gravestorm) or allows you to exile a whole graveyard, thereby fueling Gravestorm. Alternatively, you can respond to a spell by exiling the controller’s graveyard, letting the spell resolve, then exiling that fresh card with Nezumi Graverobber to enable a flip. Plague Wind combos with Void Maw but is a fine idea on its own. Shred Memory more often transmutes for Nezumi Graverobber or Basal Thrull than it exiles anything, but it’s efficient on both ends. Lastly, Death Rattle is removal made cheap by the Spellbombs and Thrulls and whatnot; being able to hit Black creatures is nice.

This is a Mag deflector deck for a few reasons:

  • It’s absurdly cheap to build.
  • It preys upon a top-player resource (the graveyard).
  • When it’s online, it’s difficult to stop its basic preying operation of exiling graveyards.

This deck doesn’t need an opponent to have an important graveyard; it’s designed to abuse whatever’s there. But if your opponent is playing, say, Premium Deck Series: Graveborn, you have the tools to beat him easily. Entomb is cute until Nihil Spellbomb or Shred Memory crashes the party. Fast reanimator decks are traditionally tough to stop in multiplayer, and therefore a good strategy, but this deck reviles them with a normal curve. It’s fine against many strategies but is golden against a few that a typical deck struggles with, and that’s why it’s a mag deflector.

Keep in mind with mag deflector decks that you might be able to score some political points at the table by doing a contextually obscure thing well. If you can manhandle (personhandle?) the annoying deck, you easily can convince the others that you should stick around. It doesn’t always come up, but it’s present enough that you can stay in games long past when someone should have eliminated you.

Where to Find Mag Deflectors

How do you become aware of these cheap shields? Thankfully, there are several avenues you can explore—from the theoretical to the practical and from the competitive to the wonky. In no particular order, here are my suggestions:

Junk Rares – Any online card store worth its Sowing Salt lets you filter cards by rarity and price. Sometimes, it’s worth browsing to see what’s available. Many a rare has plenty of utility in the right circumstance, but those circumstances are considered sufficiently obscure that the price is low. This is in part due to . . .

Warped Tournament Metagames – If the Legacy, Standard, Extended, or Modern formats become weird, they need weird answer cards. When they need those cards, the cards are pricey; otherwise, they are cheap. Cursory awareness of historical formats can remind you of cards that are contextually powerful—which is exactly what you’re looking for. Most metagames will have some sideboard cards like this, but in ban-worthy formats, you’ll see these cards in the main deck.

When tutoring to the top of the library was big in Legacy through Mystical Tutor and Enlightened Tutor, Pat Chapin used Predict to mill the searched-for card and draw two of his own. Effectively, he was countering the opponent’s two cards’ worth of a power play—the tutor and the tutored—and going up in cards. It was narrow, but effective. When Dark Depths and Vampire Hexmage oppressed Extended, answers for a 20/20 indestructible flying token ranged from the versatile (Path to Exile) to the semi-versatile (Repeal) to the narrow (Temporal Isolation). If you need to deflect a huge early beatstick, you have the same range of options.

Multiplayer, especially Commander, can be as warped a metagame as Legacy, where certain considerations heighten in importance. I’m particularly interested in packing loads of global artifact destruction for the mana rocks that dominate Commander, but you can stick other foci in your deck depending on the color. In any event, historical deck lists can be great for alerting you to answer cards.

Awareness of Game Zones and Actions – Why are Cosi's Trickster and Aven Mindcensor in Legacy decks? It’s because they take advantage of what most opponents are doing—searching libraries and shuffling afterward. If you can work these types of cards into your existing game plan (in Cosi's Trickster’s case, Merfolk beatdown), you’re golden. When I had a March of the Machines deck, I included Mindlock Orb (a 4/4 for {3}{U} if March was out) and used Machinate and Faerie Mechanist to find what I needed rather than Fabricate or Reshape.

If you’re frustrated with your Commander games featuring too much fast mana or players with Reliquary Tower and fifteen cards in hand, punish them! For the latter, I’m increasingly fascinated with Iron Maiden and ViselingBlack Vise variants that hit every opponent. If you combine them with Kederekt Leviathan and friends, things get more ridiculous. Bounce the overgrown board, float mana, play Iron Maiden, and dish out double-digit damage to everyone else. It’s beautiful.

Normal rules about having draw steps and casting multiple spells a turn are incredibly important to deck functions; thus, combo decks hate Rule of Law, ramp decks aren’t keen on Tunnel Ignus, and Blue decks don’t want to see Omen Machine. If your deck doesn’t care about what some of these symmetrical hate cards do, stick them in, and see what happens. If I were building mono-Red Commander (not my strong suit), I’d make sure to include an Omen Machine and its uncle Uba Mask. I’m in a color terrible at drawing cards, so instead of trying to keep up with everyone else with Temple Bell or Howling Mine, why not make everyone else stay down with me? You can make unfair opposing decks play fair with the right cards; it’s just a matter of building in a way that you’re cool with doing so.

If someone’s abusing a game zone—library, hand, graveyard—find a way to mess with it. Send the problems on a different path than your opponent wants. Bouncing, exiling, and shuffling into libraries tend to annoy graveyard-based decks (“Cool, Living Death, you got there,” said the Mnemonic Nexus, chuckling to itself). There are more options than you think there are for whatever you’re trying to deflect.

Gatherer Searches – Looking up terms that tend to show up on mag deflectors helps. Try “skip”, “more than”, or “player” with “can’t” and see what you like. If you find one card you’re keen on, search for the interesting bits of its wording to find cards like it.

Keeping It Freed from the Real

Cleverness and forethought, combined with research, can make up for a load of money. Sometimes that mag deflector nobody minded is what saves your bacon, and you can use the money you saved to buy some bacon. At the end of the day, it’s you with a game win and a bacon trophy, and who doesn’t want that?

So until next time . . . kill them.