elcome, my friends, to Esper Week! For some reason (probably due to it being the week dedicated to all things black, blue, white, metal, and sphinx-y), I felt like digging out my Periodic Table of Elements. To my dismay, I could not find etherium on it anywhere. Strange, being that Esper is basically covered with the stuff.
Now, I may not have my facts straight, but I believe etherium exists on Earth as we know it. In my trusty lab, I ran a couple of
test subjects experiments through a Quantum Solaceizer, spent a couple of late nights submerged in a frenzy of work (and my Seinfeld Season 7 DVD), and even poured two beakers of harmless substances together, laughing insanely all the while. All this hard work boiled down to my soon-to-be-famous discovery. You know that sticky stuff on the back of stamps? That's etherium, in its solid form. As a final test, I stuck about fifty stamps on my head last night before retiring, and woke up with a presumably (I haven't counted the thousandth places yet) higher IQ, as well as a peculiar urge to mail a letter or ten.
After even more experiments (note: no players were harmed during the creation of this joke), I deduced etherium's liquid form, which is far more dangerous. I call it "deCordovade" but when ingested it basically gives you superpowers, particularly super durability. I can't say I'm surprised, though. How else could mailmen heroically travel through hail, sleet, and snow to deliver mail? Unfortunately, liquid etherium has a side effect: it wears off and subsequently causes nearby dogs to viciously attack you. (Too long; didn't read-ers: If it weren't for dogs, super-powered mailmen would rule the world. Believe it or not.)
I suspect no one really cares about etherium's gaseous state (a noble thought), so I'll quit my sculpting to bring you patient folks some decks. Since there's such an abundance of Esper cards to talk about, I think I'll divide the varsity team prospects between this week and the next. Let's get the astrolabe rolling!
We'll embark on today's metal-plated journey with everyone's favorite red-orange-symboled critter from Shards of Alara, Sharuum the Hegemon. Initially I was pretty stumped as to what a hegemon was. I assumed it was either a fresh made-up word to join the ranks between Hanabi and Hydromorph, or a rejected name for an adorable plant-monster. There's no way it's a real word, I thought, for the almighty red squiggly line has materialized under it! After consulting a source or two, I discovered that "hegemon" is the root of "hegemony." Hah! No squiggly line on that one.
Hegemony apparently means leadership or predominance—fitting for Sharuum, as the lustrous sphinx is part of the legendary mythic rare cycle, others of which include Mayael the Anima and Kresh the Bloodbraided, who I've decided to call Loudkresher. Unlike the ability-rich Sedris, the Traitor King or Rafiq of the Many, Sharuum's big, totally-worth- ability is a "mere" Argivian Restoration. However, this isn't as simple as it might seem: If you have one Sharuum in play and you play a second one, throughout a rigorous process involving a monkey wrench, some soap, and this lengthy Rules Corner link, an arbitrary loop is created. I'm not even going to bother attempting to explain it. Just take my word for it that a combination of the legend rule and state-based effects causes the Sharuums to zoom in and out of graveyard as many times as you want.
This, of course, sounds the wedding bells between this combo and Disciple of the Vault, a fear-inducing little man who will scratch your opponent every time Sharuum's reflections blank each other out. The recently printed Deathgreeter, who's basically a backwards Soul Warden, can gain you infinite life. The Warden itself, along with Leonin Elder, will do the same thing.
One of the main inspirations in building a Sharuum deck besides the above combo was Dromar's Attendant. Despite their printing in Invasion along their obvious Dragon buddies, I don't recall the Attendants getting any playtime at all. Since acquiring three colors of mana is still a tricky business even in these bountiful days, I figured Dromar's Attendant would be a great add. It can pull Esper Charms (and Dromar's Charms, I guess) out of its hat, and sometimes when it steps behind a door, it comes back as a Tower Gargoyle. Sphinx Sovereign is also far easier to play with an Attendant at the ready. You could also simply reanimate it with Sharuum for some double Sphinx action.
Now we get into basic reanimating shenanigans. Toymaker can put flashy artifacts into your graveyard to be Sharuumed. The same discard outlet can also make your huge, unwieldy artifacts into 7/7 beatsticks (seen in the front window, Akroma's Memorial).
The deck plays somewhere between reanimator and aggro-control. To keep up the early pressure, Windwright Mage and Tower Gargoyle can provide the swings. Over in the control section, Scourglass is just nasty when recurred. Even without a Sharuum piecing together the doom-filled glass, Academy Ruins can bring it and other artifacts back from the dead.
There's an array of Johnny juices simmering in there, so feel free to mash the deck into a pulp of your choice. I figured Fellwar Stone would be great in these Vivid times, and it gives Toymaker something to pump in the first couple of turns.
The deck is a bit brain-twisting to play. The six Charms give you a lot of options early. If you find yourself swarmed by creatures, look for a Scourglass to clear the board, then start taking over the game with Sharuum. A basic but devastating play is a simple Sharuum returning a Tower Gargoyle. I realized that Dromar's Attendant has good synergy with sunburst cards, and I was lacking in terms of removal, so in came Engineered Explosives as solid, returnable removal. It also boosts Windwright Mage, who's there as an Esper denizen. Fabricate or Thirst for Knowledge would be good additions if you want to modify the deck further. Isperia the Inscrutable might complement the Sphinx theme and find your flyers!
When I wrote about my Lich's Mirror deck about a month ago, I took some time to analyze the flavor of the 'Lich' family tree. Liches, generally, offer a Faustian chance at immortality, but at a dire price. In the case of specific game play, cards like Lich's Tomb or Nefarious Lich transform your graveyard into your pseudo life total.
I now say I may have been too hasty when comparing Lich's Mirror to its namesake ancestry. Sure, it saves you from certain death, but for a Lich-to-Lich comparison in Shards of Alara, look no further than Immortal Coil. Breaking it down, the Coil costs four mana, draws you cards at the expense of your graveyard, and gives you a goose egg on the scoreboard under certain conditions. Make no mistake, Nefarious Lich is back in Standard, but in awesome, electric cube form. Seriously, this thing looks like it came from a Powerthirst commercial.
Of course, what did everyone try to do with Nefarious Lich the first time? Give it to your opponent, and then bounce it. Way back when, Mark Gottlieb wrote about a deck that did just this, using Avarice Totem. Fortunately, there's a comparable card-control-changing combo contraption in the current Standard card pool: Puca's Mischief.
A while ago, Ben S. emailed me about his diabolical scheme with Immortal Coil. Seeking to break the card, he paired it with Puca's Mischief and any spell that removes a graveyard from the game. In simpler terms, he wrote "Puca's Mischief the Immortal Coil and then use Jund Charm to kill your opponent's graveyard. Then they lose! : D". To avoid mana issues, I'm going to do something similar with Relic of Progenitus. The Relic is in Standard, so despite Ben's fine suggestion of Tormod's Crypt for Extended, I'm going to keep things Standard.
As well as the Mischief-Coil kill, I wanted to see if I could use Immortal Coil proactively. Here Relic of Progenitus shows off its double edge, as it removes all graveyards from the game. Fortunately, Etherium Astrolabe showed up too. The mysterious, swirling whatever-an-astrolabe-is can axe excess Relics, as well as the Coil itself if it threatens to kill you.
Mainly, Etherium Astrolabe can get lots of artifacts into your graveyard for even more cards. Chromatic Star comes to mind, as does Rings of Brighthearth, which can duplicate the card drawing from the Astrolabe or Coil.
For the Puca plan, Relic of Progenitus isn't the only graveyard wiper. Heap Doll (conveniently an artifact) and Faerie Macabre (who can get into the graveyard for free) team up to clean out the grumper. This has the positive side effect of making Pyrrhic Revival strikingly one sided. What big guys to return? There's Salvage Titan, Ben's recommended Plan B, and Reaper King, which is worthy as well.
Sadly, Puca's Mischief became an afterthought after all the ruckus above. I still kept the main combo alive, but as a secondary feature of the deck, so I didn't build around it as much. Still, trading Obelisk of Esper for Rhox War Monk sounds like a decent plan to me.
From the Astrolabe
Skill Borrower seems to be a creature in the same vein as Quicksilver Elemental and Experiment Kraj. It's the latest card that can mooch off of the activated abilities of others. What makes it stick out from the rest is its low mana cost, allowing ability swapping to happen much sooner in the game. The downside is that you need whichever tasty activated abilities you want on top of your library instead of in play. This means Skill Borrower will usually have foreign abilities for a turn or two. I smell a reject-rare build-around session!
One good way to start is by playing cheap creatures that have outrageous activated abilities, like Anthroplasm. Giving a turn-three Skill Borrower ", tap: Put X +1/+1 counters on this" is crazy. Even when you draw the Anthroplasm, taking that ability away from Skill Borrower, the +1/+1 counters will remain. Quite a metamorphosis!
Survivor of the Unseen is interestingly decent here. When it's on your library's roof, Skill Borrower will take its card-draw ability but not the cumulative upkeep. Plus, if you have a card with a juicy ability stuck in your hand, the Survivor's ability can pop it on top of your library. Combine with a synergistic "untap" ability from Shadowmoor block, like Gilder Bairn (doubling those +1/+1 counters) and you've got a small engine.
To help out the counter madness, Power Conduit can siphon Vivid land counters into +1/+1 counters, plus the Skill Borrower can borrow its ability. Some of the Simic denizens should spread the health around as well. Brainstorms round out the deck, as well as the ability powerhouse Staff of Domination. Words of Wind allows you to keep a certain creature on top of your library if you want.
Really, though, the roots of this deck started with Jushi Apprentice, and not just because it spurred the Wizards theme. What happens when you have a Jushi Apprentice on top of your library with the Borrower in play, and have eight cards in your hand? I'll tell you. Use the Borrower to draw a card. You'll have nine in hand now, so you will, bizarrely, flip your Skill Borrower.
Your Skill Borrower isn't a flip card, so this won't do anything, but you should definitely rotate it 180° anyway. You could use Wall of Deceit to do something similar along a different axis. You'd turn Skill Borrower face down, at which point it's a 2/2 colorless creature with no name, creature types, or abilities. The funny part is that it doesn’t even have morph!
See you all next week!
"Esper, like any work of art, can be truly appreciated only from a distance." –Tezzeret