Say Hello to My Leetle Friends
Last week, I had to pack up all of my worldly possessions in order to ship them to Seoul.1 I could only keep the bare minimum amount of cards—five long boxes of sixties, another five of Commander decks, and three shoeboxes full of random cards that I hope will find their way into decks this year—but in the process of sorting through them all, I realized just how many sixty-card decks I have. Back at Muse Vessel, I became the Commander guy by default, but I actually enjoy the process of building sixties far more than I enjoy building hundreds. In this article, which I hope will become a series, I want to break down some of my sixties to see what they can teach us about deck construction (a lot of “How Not to . . . ” I’m afraid) and multiplayer strategy.
First up, an attempt to answer a fairly contentious question: “Are planeswalkers any good in multiplayer?” I've heard a lot of people say that they aren’t nearly as good as they are in duels because of how many opponents are able to swing at them, but at the same time, I’ve heard others say that planeswalkers are potentially dominating because of their powerful, repeatable effects. Most importantly, I’ve both won and been beaten by a number of different planeswalkers, even without playing Standard during the height of Jace’s brokenness.
Venser, the So Broken
My Venser deck began when a friend introduced me to digital proxies. As most of us do, I started out porting over some of my actual decks before taking advantage of the ability to play a bunch of cards that I can't afford. Freed from the Real, as it were, I started playing around with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Venser, the Sojourner before realizing that Venser was much more interesting to me than Jace.2 I started focusing on Venser more and more until Jace dropped to a one-of, and I enjoyed playing it so much that I talked my wife into signing the requisition order for a set of Vensers last Christmas. Incidentally, Venser is going for $11.99 at the moment, and he is a bargain at the price.
Venser is a great example of how we can make planeswalkers work. Yes, the ultimates are awesome sauce, and getting almost any ’walker’s ultimate to go off is going to put you a long way toward winning, no matter how many opponents you face, but that’s just Magical Christmas Land–type thinking. You really need three things in a planeswalker-centered deck:
- A way to make maximum value from the minor abilities—especially the loyalty-building ones
- A way to defend them and/or build up loyalty
- A way to win without hitting the ultimate
Now let’s have a look at how my Venser build does this:
"Series of Fortunate Vensers"
As you can imagine, playing Venser with creatures with enters- and/or leaves-the-battlefield abilities is good value. For a while, I was playing Aven Riftwatcher and gaining 4 life every time Venser blinked it out, making it essentially a 2/3 with vigilance and nullifying the vanishing drawback, but I decided on the current incarnation, replacing the Aven with Oracles. Sure, it isn’t as good on either offense or defense, but I realized that, unlike other planeswalkers, Venser has a unique requirement of his own: Once you get his ultimate ability off, you need to be able to chain multiple spells together so you can scythe through your opponents’ permanents without running out of cards.
That last bit is crucial with Venser. Most planeswalkers give you an ultimate that immediately affects your board or your opponent’s board, but Venser does neither—hence the need for cantrippy creatures. Once the ultimate goes off, you want to be able to cast Mulldrifter for its evoke cost (it still counts as playing it!), draw into a Sea Gate Oracle, Wall of Omens, or some other cheap spells, play them all, and still have a hand full of gas. If all goes according to plan, the turn after Venser goes off, you’ll be the only one on the board with any permanents worth owning.
How does it go in practice? Well, I had a couple of friends in Tokyo who played sixties, and they just refused to play against it in duels, which is high praise for a deck with neither combo nor counters. In multiplayer, it draws a lot of attention as a known offender, but it still manages to win; sometimes Venser goes off, and sometimes he doesn’t, but it wins anyway. The last game I had provides a good example of how it plays. Venser was dispatched once by a Violent Ultimatum and once by an Archon of Justice, and the third time I played him, he was neutralized by one of the trickiest pieces of anti-planeswalker technology in the multiverse (I’ll give you a hint: It’s an artifact from Mirrodin block with a mana cost of 1, and it shuts down planeswalkers like few other cards). I still won against four opponents in a game of de facto Archenemy due to overwhelming card advantage and Titanic beatdown. I was also able to go ultimate on the turn I won, but it was unnecessary. Best of all, my opponents had all devoted so many resources to killing off a succession of Vensers that I had over 50 life at one stage—enough to absorb the one serious alpha strike they were able to put together—and I still ended at over 20 life.
A Series of Fortunate Vensers is a perfect example of how to build around planeswalkers for multiplayer. Planeswalkers are the ultimate cockroach cards, providing powerful, repeatable effects and often being quite hard for your opponents to get rid of. The trick is to maximize synergy with those cockroach effects while at the same time keeping your options open with alternate paths to victory. And of course, doing it with a card that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg is a good idea, too.
In the future, I would like to add at least one more Akroma's Vengeance, but that’s all I have for now. Ajani isn’t pulling his weight—Venser gives me pseudo-vigilance anyway—and I lose those +1/+1 counters when Venser blinks a creature, which is the whole point of the deck. I may replace him with another Oracle or Nevermaker, or perhaps the artifact I mentioned earlier (Hint #2: It has absurd synergy with Venser’s +2 ability!3) or some more instant-speed removal. Elixir of Immortality is a must in this deck, and it may go up to two copies. The only downside is that the recursion provided by Reveillark and Emeria, the Sky Ruin suffers when you shuffle your graveyard into your library, but considering how easily you can deck yourself when drawing five or six cards a turn, I’m prepared to overlook it.
Nicol Bolas, Obviously
While Venser is among the most polished decks I own, this next deck is pretty much a random pile of stuff, but it still gives you a useful take on how to use planeswalkers in multiplayer.
This deck has its origins in my Thraximundar Commander deck; basically, I just enjoyed playing those Grixis gorillas so much that I wanted to be able to do the same thing in sixties. I found two cheap Chinese copies of Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker at Worlds in 2010 and a set of Cruel Ultimatums online for a buck or so, and I was off!
As you can tell from the hastily cobbled together mana base, this deck is very much a work in progress. To be honest, I think I had it half-assembled for an entire semester and then eventually said, “Screw it, better to play a bad deck than never play good cards!” and put it together in a couple of minutes with whatever I had at hand.
This is a classic midrange deck (or as classic as a non-green midrange deck can be), designed to survive long enough to get to 7 mana and start dropping bombs. While that sounds like a recipe for failure, it often succeeds through a combination of strong defenders (never underestimate the power of deathtouch!), far too much mana (thirty-six mana sources if you include the Igneous Pouncers), and one of the best creatures ever printed (the humble Mulldrifter).
At the top of the curve sits the mighty Nicol Bolas, who is probably my favorite card in the whole game. He’s there to do what he does best: blow up stuff my black spells can't touch and put the game away. I can defend him the same way I defend myself—with poisonous chumps and huge fatties—and the fact that someone will have taken an Ultimatum to the face before the big fella comes out means that people won’t normally have any answers left by the time he comes out. Also, as a two-of, he won’t even come out in every game, so he has that surprise value that Venser lacks. Even if opponents do have answers, I’ll be putting on so much pressure from different sources that they’ll struggle to deal with Old Nick without succumbing to another threat.
Going forward,4 this deck obviously needs some work, but I just haven’t had time until now. The first thing to go will be Slave of Bolas, which is a fantastic spell that is still worse than Spinal Embrace in almost every way. I think more copies of Terminate will help me to survive longer, although I could also take advantage of my colors and play Crosis's Charm instead. Terminate is the Cadillac of spot removal, but the Charm provides a choice between Terror, Shatter, and Boomerang in one tasty package, so either is a legitimate choice. Either way, the combination of four Terminates and/or Crosis's Charm, eight deathtouch uglies, and three Spinal Embraces will make my opponents very nervous about attacking me, which can only further my diabolic ends.
I also need to cut some of the mana to prevent flooding. I think I originally decided that any card slots I couldn't fill should just be replaced with lands, which explains the twenty-six lands and the lack of a fourth Grixis Grimblade. It’s probably pretty obvious that the mana base is a wreck—not because of the lack of expensive multi-lands, but because the distribution of basic lands is horribly skewed towards Swamps. More red and blue sources—or at least a set of Evolving Wilds—are almost certainly in order.
The Borderposts are okay, although they probably aren’t as good as Signets in a vacuum. They’d work better in a deck with landfall, so I may add Ob the Slob in order to bring the pain earlier than turn seven. I also need to bring in more copies of Blood Tyrant from one of my other Grixis decks. Increasing the threat density without reducing my ability to hit 8 mana will be tough, and I’d prefer to err on the side of caution because of how expensive my business spells are, but I’m sure there are some good options. I have seven mana rocks that could be replaced with a set of Impulse and a couple of Nucklavee, for example, or I can add Mnemonic Wall to provide early defense and late-game recursion. With so many options, we might have to revisit this little friend at some point in the future!
Building around a planeswalker is simple enough if you remember these three principles: Maximize the value of loyalty-building abilities rather than obsessing over the ultimate, make sure you can either defend the planeswalkers or build up their loyalty, and have a reliable way to win without hitting the ultimate. Otherwise, you can still get good value out of a planeswalker by just putting one or two copies in your deck. For example, you can apply pressure with a diverse range of threats while your planeswalker provides support (Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, Liliana Vess, and Karn Liberated are excellent here) or you can control the board in other ways while building up to the ultimate unopposed (hmmm . . . now that I think about it, Nicol Bolas, Liliana, and Karn are excellent here).
The rule is the same for all of them: Planeswalkers are good because they give you value over time, regardless of whether you get to go ultimate. I’ve seen Karn win a lot of games, but I’ve never seen him go off; usually he does so much damage to the rest of the table that his controller was able to run away with the game, and I’ve seen similar results from Nicol Bolas, two out of three Jaces, both Lilianas, and at least one Chandra.
At the end of the day, it’s better to play strong threats and force your opponents to react to you than it is to avoid playing fun cards because you’re worried that you’ll draw negative attention from people who are trying to kill you anyway, and planeswalkers are no exception.
1 As you read this, I will be living in a new city—where I don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone except my wife and her family. If you’re a casual player in Korea, please let me know!!!
2 You might be a casual player if . . .
3 I promise to reveal the card in a future article, but this weekly article gig is tough—I need to hold some tech in reserve!
4 Is there a more stupid phrase in the English language than, “Going forward”? I can’t believe I even used it, but it’s so pervasive that I guess I was lucky to hold out as long as I did. How is, “Going forward, I will try to be more annoying,” any different than, “I will be more annoying”? What’s the point of having a future tense if you feel the need to spell out the fact that you’re talking about the future!? . . . End rant.