ello and welcome back to the Lab, after a nice break from my weekly efforts. And I leapfrogged a nontheme week in the process! Win-win. I pick up on miniscule triumphs like that. Little intricacies zoom through my mental landscape like on a hyperactive side ticker. Hallucinations are infrequent but vivid. Catching colors. The slits in the fabric.
So it's Transformation Week, finally. Finally. Double-faced cards were inherently the most fascinating aspect of Innistrad from my initial point of view (from the fishbowl). Upon diving in (or out), I immediately eyed cards like Civilized Scholar / Homicidal Brute as worthy pieces to showcase in the Lab. While waiting for this theme week to come along (Werewolf Week was a particularly cruel tease (although I had fun all the same)) astute readers sent me some nifty transform decks, and I'll suppose I'll showcase them. I'll do some building of my own as well, too.
Let's start out nice and easy, with the latest and perhaps greatest Vampire lord, Bloodline Keeper. Tapping to create an armada of flying 2/2s is pretty great in the first place, but also transforming into the mighty Lord of Lineage? An instant addition to any dedicated Vampire deck, I'd say. And attaining five Vampires shouldn't be too lofty of a goal for such decks.
If you hit a Vampire on every turn up to the Keeper, you can easily tap and transform the Keeper for a huge swing on the fifth turn. Thus my Vampiric troops will be skewed towards the shallow end of the mana pool. After a couple years of focus, the establishment of Vampires as black's new go-to troop type is convincingly solid. Innistrad brings a delicious shade of red to the equation, with quick hitter Stromkirk Noble and the ferocious Bloodcrazed Neonate. There's also the aggressively fashioned Rakish Heir, which offers an alternative way to boost your guys: by hitting your opponent. Which was part of the plan anyway.
Some veteran Vampires trudge into their deserved places in this list. Vampire Lacerator and Vampire Nighthawk are still mainstays of efficiency. Pouring black mana into Kalastria Highborn has always been pretty fun. Gatekeeper of Malakir remains excellent, and forces open the Vampire removal portal, through which Urge to Feed and Feast of Blood burst.
With any deck of mine comes some fun singletons to spice up game play. Olivia Voldaren is a clear choice, having brought a razing to many a mana-laden table. Guul Draz Assassin seems like an interesting one-drop to sink mana into if no other options present themselves. And I gave Vein Drinker, one of those great kitchen-table cards that sadly disappears into the Magical spellscape, a proper slot.
If I could send one card back to the past along the Magical timeline, with the sole intent of blowing up as many minds as possible, it would have to be Garruk Relentless / Garruk, the Veil-Cursed. Let's say the Internet mutates to the point where it becomes a pocket vortex of time, kay? (Hear me out. I seriously bet this happens.) The card file for Garruk Relentless falls through a cyber rip in time and pops up on an obscure forum in, oh, 2006. (Sometime before the word "planeswalker" set off a swirling ripple of change in 2007, in the form of literal game-changer Tarmogoyf.)
Someone reading that forum and digesting Garruk Relentless would bug out. I know I would. The card represents so much of where Magic currently finds itself, while simultaneously looking forward to Magic's future sprawling. As a planeswalker, Garruk's third iteration breaks new ground by being the first one to have an ability independent of adjusting loyalty counters, which opens the door to further lacings on the 'walker formula.
Garruk Relentless also stands on the shoulders of whoever is relentlessly innovating within the depths of Magic design, as he bears so much weirdness. The funky moon symbol raises eyebrows and expectations for continued riffing on a card's visuals. In a somewhat ironic twist, the moon symbol comes in the same set as the return of flashback, a mechanic which has been stripped of its equally perplexing tombstone symbol. My personal theory: the moon symbol means way more than we think it does.
Finally, there's that supercute dot—oh, sorry, color indicator—that features on the double-faced cards. Garruk holds yet another unique mantle by having the first and only multicolored dot. Gorsh, what a card.
Garruk Relentless seems more of a versatile piece to use in the right deck than a straight up combo-enabler. Let's see, his first self can deal with smallish creatures and make Wolf tokens, and his transformed self can make more deadly Wolf tokens, fill my graveyard, tutor for creatures, and boost my team for a hammer swing. That's a lot of options.
I decided to build around synergistic creatures that Garruk, the Veil-Cursed could find. At first my mind leaped to Kessig Cagebreakers, which can deceptively bludgeon opponents. With a deck around sacrificing a bunch of creatures, and helpful tutoring ability, the Cagebreakers could create swarms of Wolves with each attack.
The usual suspects for a green and black deck began showing up in my subconscious. Land-fetchers like Sakura-Tribe Elder and Yavimaya Elder can thin my deck, boost my mana base, and get into the graveyard. Shriekmaw is an effective piece of removal that can be evoked for two mana. For some disruption, I added Augur of Skulls, who can stymie attackers or take a chunk of your opponent's hand.
I looked to the Golgari guild of Ravnica for inspiration, and returned with some recurring experts. Golgari Guildmage can loop lifecycles with enough mana, and the occasional stats boost is always welcome. I was delighted to give Bloodbond March a home as well. With a stacked graveyard comes much Marching (and sacrifice effects.)
I was nearing the singleton slots at this point. First I snapped up Spider Spawning as a perfect-fitting spell from Innistrad. Then, browsing the mythic rares, I glanced upon Essence of the Wild.
And my jaw dropped hard.
Essence of the Wild | Art by Terese Nielsen
Essence of the Wild radiates this deck from the sunny hummings of synergy to a toxic supernova blast of brokenness. Imagine following up a Kessig Cagebreakers with the Essence and attacking for something like 30 damage out of nowhere. Garruk now produces a 6/6 every turn. Spider Spawning now produces too many 6/6s. And with Bloodbond March, a late-game squadron of Sakura-Tribe Elders becomes four huge beatsticks. Clearly, a singleton slot wouldn't cut it.
Now to the main event: Civilized Scholar and its alter ego, Homicidal Brute. Striped in all-around praise and sensible flavor, it's one of my favorite cards from Innistrad. For me personally, I love the fact that it has both a solid red side and a solid blue side, making it unique amongst blue-red cards (my group of affinity.) Transform was rightfully controversial, but when cards like this are enabled (with precise execution, I should say) it's worth the stab into uncharted waters.
I've got three reader decks based around the Scholar to present. The first comes from Nate H., a frequent creative contributor. Take it away, Nate:
I have an idea for a deck using several Innistrad cards as well as some older cards. The main focus of this deck is copying a Civilized Scholar using Phantasmal Image or Phyrexian Metamorph. Because the copy is not a physical double-faced card, it cannot transform, but its ability still tries to do as much as possible. Since most of this deck consists of creatures, the result is a very efficient engine for drawing cards and filling your graveyard. There are several ways to use this engine to generate an army of big creatures. The madness creatures and Skaab Ruinator are useful even if you discard them. Splinterfright can be huge when you're dumping lots of creature cards into your graveyard. Nantuko Cultivator takes all of the lands that inevitably fill your hand as you discard creatures and gives you a new hand as well as a sizable body. Wonder turns your army of fatties into, um, an air force of fatties.
Fauna Shaman helps find the cards you need as well as providing another way to get creatures into your graveyard, and Genesis can get back anything that is destroyed or discarded.
Next up is Will C., who had an alternate take on a similar combo.
The point of this deck is to mana-accelerate so we can get a Phantasmal Image or Phyrexian Metamorph copying a Civilized Scholar on the battlefield along with Thought Reflection. Once you have that, simply activate your Scholar over and over again, drawing two cards and discarding a creature card each time.
In theory, it shouldn't be too hard to draw your deck at this point – over half the cards in the deck are creatures, so in the long run, you'll draw more than one creature per Scholar activation on average even if you don't use Land Grant to find Dryad Arbor, or Skyshroud Claim to thin lands out of your deck, or Kozilek to reshuffle all those creatures that you already discarded.
Once you've drawn enough of your deck, simply cast Seismic Assault (using Spirit Guides and/or Manamorphose if necessary) and throw all your spare lands at your opponent. If you don't have enough lands to win right away, no problem – just shuffle back up with Kozilek and draw your entire deck again.
Finally, Nick O.H.'s spin on things:
The idea is to get a Dimir Doppelganger copying a Civilized Scholar (or Necrotic Ooze with the Scholar in the grave). Since the Doppelganger or Ooze isn't a double-faced card, it can't transform, but discarding a creature will still untap it. The deck has enough creatures that this can let you filter through a good number of cards very quickly, but the real fun begins when you find a Grave-Shell Scarab. With the Scarab in your graveyard, you can replace the draw by dredging it, then discard it again to untap the Doppelscholar. This allows you to easily mill out your entire library. Once you do, just activate the ability one more time and then respond to it by turning the Doppelganger into Laboratory Maniac for the win. (If you're using Ooze, you can just borrow a milled Doppelganger's ability.)
If the Maniac plan doesn't work, Lord of Extinction is there as an alternate Doppelganger target that is also likely to win the game with a fat graveyard.
Until next time, y'all.