h, can you smell that? No, not the indrik droppings carried down the street by last night's downpour. I mean the pungent smell of singed hair from an Izzet chronarch's head, the putrid whiff of dried blood from a Rakdos party, and the petrichor of the churned Golgari soil.
It can only mean one thing: we're officially back in Ravnica.
Art by Dave Kendall
But amid all the other smells, most of all I smell simmering sinew bubbling within the brewing cauldron of deck builders everywhere. It's deck-building season!
Like chefs to a freshly stocked fridge, thousands of players are descending on the Card Image Gallery, trying to come up with the sauciest meals they can. What the staple lists of Standard will be now that Scars of Mirrodin block is out of sight is anybody's guess. There's only one way to find out: build some decks!
I received a ton of submissions for this fresh format, and it's definitely worth looking through all the decklists at the end of this article if you're searching for some ideas. However, one in particular caught my eye. It flies in the face of common knowledge, plays some unusual cards, and is a lot of fun to play to boot! Has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?
What is it? A lifegain deck! It was Milan Majercik's unique take on Bant that won my eye over. Let's take a look at his deck—Living Faith!
Milan Majercik's Living Faith
The Battle Plan
Ah, lifegain. Normally, focusing on gaining life is considered mediocre at best. Gaining life just stops you from losing, and if you're focused on gaining life and nothing else, you're just delaying the inevitable.
However, on rare occasions in the past, there have been cards that create a marriage between lifegain and being proactive. And, once again, it looks like the tools might exist in Standard to make this unique deck work out!
How does it work? Well, first of all, it's important to realize that this deck is just as much a midrange deck as it is a lifegain deck! Highly efficient midrange creatures like Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, Trostani, and Sigarda threaten to tear down your opponent's life total just as quickly as you can raise yours up. On the top end, Drogskol Reaver serves as a powerful finisher that draws you cards in the process.
Speaking of raising your life total, you'll note that plenty of creatures in this deck do that as well. Trostani, Thragtusk, and Drogskol Reaver each swing your life total upward, and Tree of Redemption can protect your life total for later. The key creature here is the new Magic 2013 rare, Rhox Faithmender.
The Faithmender doubles all of your lifegain—making some fairly absurd things happen. Thragtusk gains you 10 life. Drogskol Reaver gains you 12. Even Tree of Redemption does actually gain you life, meaning you'll double the life gained from whatever the difference is between its toughness and your life total!
In addition to Rhox Faithmender, one of the other key cards is Chalice of Life. It's easy to get above 30 life in this deck, meaning the Chalice will quickly begin zapping away your opponent's life in 5 point chunks! Not only can you beat down your opponent with an aggressive draw, but, thanks to Chalice, a slow, trudging lifegain draw is often just as potent.
The key to improving this deck is going to be moving it forward on both axes of midrange deck and lifegain deck. Cards that hit the tiny part of the Venn diagram where they intersect are going to be what we're looking for.
Let's take a look over each of the cards in the deck individually to see how they fit into the larger picture.
As mentioned above, the Faithmender is one of the key components to playing this deck. He helps out your lifegain strategy dramatically, and while he isn't an insane midrange creature, a 1/5 is still pretty difficult for a lot of decks to swing through. And if you cast two or more things get really bonkers—the abilities all affect each other.
How so? Well, two Faithmenders quadruple all of your lifegain, three of them octuple your lifegain, and if you ever manage to have all four out on the battlefield at a time you'll be gaining a full sixteen times the life! He's good on his own and better in multiples—we definitely want four of these.
Thragtusk has been one of the most widely played cards in Magic 2013 so far, and for good reason. For five mana you end up with a 5-power creature, 5 life, and some insurance should things go awry. Whether fighting midrange, beatdown, or even control, this is one tusk worth having around. This is one of those unique cards that fits perfectly on the midrange axis and the lifegain axis, and we're going to want to keep all four around.
Aha! A Return to Ravnica sighting! This exciting new legendary creature adds a gigantic boost to this strategy, both serving as a midrange inevitability engine and a way to gain a ton of life. A 2/5 for four mana is a fine body, and both of her abilities are useful in this deck. (Although I would like a couple more token producers to take full advantage of her second ability.) Since her ability checks toughness, it also makes for a nice life swing with Tree of Redemption!
Most decks are going to be hard-pressed to beat you while you have an active Trostani and a token. Trostani is a legendary four mana creature, so I don't want the full four copies of her, but Milan was spot on with choosing to play three of this high-impact card.
While Restoration Angel doesn't gain you any life on its own, this versatile disciple of Avacyn does a lot of work in this deck. Have a Thragtusk? How about you gain 5 more life and get a 3/3 to boot! Have Trostani on the battlefield? Flickering anything else will give you some life. It can even reset a Tree of Redemption in a pinch! On top of it all, the Angel is an awesome midrange creature at a 3/4 flier for four. I'm definitely going to want to keep the three copies Milan put in here, and I might even try and find room for a fourth.
guy Spirit was previously hampered by the prevalence of Dismember and Vapor Snag, in this new Standard world he looks poised to shine! While he is a little expensive, a single attack by him could end the game on his own. Because of his high mana cost and finisher nature I agree with Milan that two copies is the right number. Once some mana ramp is added into this deck—more on that in a little bit—this card will look a little more feasible to cast.
The 0/13 Tree hasn't seen a ton of play, but in this deck it can pull a ton of tricks. First of all, it's a big blocker that can bring your life total up if you stumble early on. It also happens to work well with both Trostani and Rhox Faithmender. The Trostani interaction should be clear, but how Tree works with Faithmender is a little more subtle...
Whenever you use Tree and go up in life, it's considered by the game rules to be gaining that much life. So let's say, for example, your board is a Rhox Faithmender and a Tree and you're at 10 life. You untap, swap with Tree, and go up 3 life. Faithmender doubles that, making your life 16. Activating it once isn't a huge deal. However, it grants you major life total inevitability over the next few turns. Let's look at it further
The next turn, you switch the two back. You're at 10 and Tree is at 16 toughness. The turn after, you swap and go up 6 life, which Faithmender turns into 12 life. Now you're at 22 and Tree is at 10. Two more Tree activations later, you end up at 34 .Two more tree activations, and you're at 58 . And so on and so on. Yes, it's slow—but if the game is stalling out it's just another cool trick that Tree can leverage for you.
How many do I want to play? Well, I want to see one sometimes, but when is really dependent. In some matchups, like control, it's not very exciting, while in others, like beatdown, it's a huge deal. This sounds like a card I would main-deck one or two of and then sideboard more as necessary.
Mwonvuli Beast Tracker is one my favorite cards in Magic 2013, and it's great to see her used here for her versatility. She can help you find the threat you're looking for, opening up main-deck answers to flying creatures, removal-heavy decks, artifacts, and enchantments.
However, she doesn't really fit well enough on either axis of the game plan for me. She doesn't contribute toward gaining you life, and on the midrange axis she's a bit of a weak tutor. I'd rather just play a flexible, powerful card in her spot that helps answer my opponent's cards than one that takes a turn and a draw step to give me what I'm looking for.
Chalice is a key component to this deck, and not one we really want to cut any of. Although on its own it makes for a fairly unexciting card, with all of the lifegain in this deck it's a cinch to flip. Once it's transformed into the Chalice of Death, it's time for your opponent to... DRINK FROM THE CHALICE! (Everybody knows Magic is far better when you announce awesome things loudly and dramatically.) It provides you major inevitability, ensuring you have a way to finish off your opponent in any given board stall. You pretty much always want to draw these, so I'm definitely sticking with four.
This is an unusual—but not completely out of place—card here. It does a little bit of everything, and each ability serves a role in this deck. It lets you gain life, create an army of chump blockers (which might even gain you the life right back thanks to Trostani!), ensure your opponents can't keep your Chalices off the table, and even draw you a card or two in a pinch.
However, this deck is so glutted at four mana already that I want to be careful about which four-mana-cost cards I put in. This one doesn't immediately affect the board, which is a huge strike against it. You could main deck one at most, but I have a feeling this deck is already going to be crammed on space. This is going to be one of the cards that can give. However, I would certainly consider sideboarding a couple to bring in against anybody with artifact destruction
As a brief aside, this card also has of my favorite comments in Multiverse (Wizards's internal database used for designers and developers to discuss cards) of all time. Some of you longtime players might appreciate this comment:
Afari 2/12/97: He traded sand for skins, skins for gold, gold for life. In the end, he traded life for sand.
That is, of course, a reference to the former tournament staple Squandered Resources. Who wrote that in Multiverse, however, is a complete mystery.
As I mentioned earlier, it is important that cards in this deck both hit upon the axis of good in midrange and good in a lifegain strategy. While Elixir does gain 5 life and shuffle some threats back into the deck, it's not a card a midrange deck would really want.
While some lifegain decks might want this to ensure they don't run out of cards and lose, I'm not too concerned about decking with all of our threats and 'inevitability engines. Plus, I'm also cutting Mwonvuli Beast Tracker, who would allow you to search up some of the one-ofs Elixir could shuffle back in. With all of those reasons pushing against Elixir, I'm going to cut it to free up spots.
Similar to Elixir, Heroes' Reunion is a strong exchange if you're looking for pure lifegain to fight a burn deck or similar, but it doesn't really fit into a midrange deck at all. There are a lot of exciting new cards I'd rather have that better fit both strategies.
This deck could definitely use some acceleration and fixing, and, recognizing this, Milan slotted in a Chromatic Lantern. The Lantern is awesome for both of those—but it's not necessarily for this deck. The big spike in this deck's mana curve is four, meaning I'd rather jump ahead on mana during turn one or two so I can cast my four-drop a turn early.
While the awesome mana fixing Lantern provides is great for a four- or five-color deck, in a three-color deck other ramp cards will be able to fix my mana well enough. Additionally, with Trading Post out of the deck, this being an artifact is not as relevant.
This deck is definitely going to want some ramp—just not the Lantern.
The Spice of Life
There are plenty of awesome new cards in Return to Ravnica for this archetype—and I know there's no way I'm going to be able to fit them all. First, I'll start off with the cards I am going to add, and then I'll mention a couple of the cards that came close for me.
Earlier I mentioned I was looking for some more tokens. I could also use another, cheaper finisher. Oh, and while I'm at it, I could also use 10 life from Trostani. Bam! Armada Wurm does all of this and more. And with some extra ramp I'm about to add to the deck, it's even more potent. I'm only playing two to split with the Reavers, but it's possible you might want to go 3/1 on the Wurm/Reaver split.
This deck could really use a way to interact with troublesome permanents, especially Planeswalkers. You have a lot of inevitability in a stalled long game, and Planeswalkers are one of the few ways your opponent could potentially fight back against your wave of inevitability. Sphere deals with practically anything, shutting off waves of spirit tokens, troublesome artifacts and enchantments, creatures that get in your way, Planeswalkers, and more. I'm going to main-deck three, and if I was building a sideboard for this deck I would certainly include the fourth.
As mentioned before, this deck really needs a way to speed itself up. Farseek and Avacyn's Pilgrim both accomplish this, letting you play your four-drops on turn three. Pilgrim also helps you activate your Grove of the Guardians more consistently, providing you with more creatures to tap.
It should be noted that your odds of playing a turn-one Pilgrim in this deck aren't fantastic—you only have eight green sources that enter the battlefield untapped. However, a turn-two Pilgrim will often be as good as a turn-one Pilgrim in this deck, so that delay while you play a tapped Hinterland Harbor isn't actually that big of a deal.
Now that you have all of this extra mana, what are you going to do if you flood out? Draw some more cards and gain life! While it is pricy to cast early on, as a two-of, Revelation is most likely to show up in the midgame when you're trying to either push through or recover. Revelation gains life and makes up for the inability of this deck to draw cards, making it a good fit.
Those are all I had room for addition-wise, since the core of this deck is so solid. However, if you want to try out some more cards, I would look at Selesnya Charm; Syncopate; Loxodon Smiter; and Jace, Architect of Thought.
Selesnya Charm: The Charm is a good answer to huge creatures that might deter you from attacking, like Wolfir Silverheart or similar. Additionally, it can also serve as a combat trick or give you something to do on the second turn. There eventually wasn't room, but it would definitely make the cut into my sideboard. If you find yourself getting run over early and are looking for a versatile card at all stages of the game, Selesnya Charm is a place to look.
Syncopate: This deck is going to tap out a lot, but a couple of counterspells could be valuable for beating any large trump cards in the long game. I could see trying out two Syncopates here.
Loxodon Smiter: The Smiter fits well on the midrange axis, but not so strong in the lifegain direction. However, if I wanted a stopgap creature to fight back against quick decks, I would definitely look toward the Smiter. (And likely play some more untapped green sources so he could come down on turn two reasonably often.)
Jace, Architect of Thought: Finally, this deck was so crammed on four-drops that Jace didn't make the cut, but he's certainly worth considering here. If you play him on turn three and your opponent doesn't have any pressure, he or she is going to be hard pressed to fight against yet another inevitability engine. This deck is also a bit light on card drawing, and Jace would help ensure your cards continue to flow late into the game.
With all of that said, here is the deck I ended up with:
Gavin Verhey's The Life and Times of Trostani
This deck is a ton of fun to play! You can start to gain truly incredible amounts of life, and there are a lot of decks that can't really fight back against a strategy like this. Best of all, if opponents try and fight you on the lifegain axis, you can just beat them to death with Thragtusks and Restoration Angels! I love versatile decks, and this is no exception.
Have fun—and be sure to steer clear of any Havoc Festivals!
All kinds of exciting post-Return to Ravnica decklists were sent in this week! Everything from Séance with populate to Door to Nothingness combo decks. Take a look!
Mark Gabenski's Chromatic Door
Jonnie Alexandro's Pack Rat Golgari
Gordon Smith's Guttersnap
Andre Judd's Heartless Summoning
David G.'s Selesnyan Humans
Leonardo Bashael's Epic Try
Niel Du Plessis's Psychic Spiral Izzet
Erick Olson's Populating Geist
Mark Schofield's Izzet Defiance
Brendan's Azorius Humans
Lord Vyer's Séance Shenanigans
The Deck Building Continues
There's plenty of exciting deck building to be had with Return to Ravnica—and this challenge is going to emphasize that. Amid a sea of awesome multicolored options, some cards scream "build-around-me!" more than others. And you know what that means: you need to go back to the doctor about the fact that you keep hearing cards scream. It's just not normal.
But once you get that all figured out, it's time to pick one of your favorite cards in the set and build around it!
Format: Future Standard (Innistrad, Dark Ascension, Avacyn Restored, Return to Ravnica, and Magic 2013)
Restrictions: Choose a card in the set and build around it!
Deadline: Monday October 1, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article
It's simple: choose a card and build around it. Want to try out your Ethereal Armor deck? Sure! Eager to win a game with Azor's Elocutors? This is a good place to try! Think you've finally figured out how to bust open Search the City? I'd love to take a look!
Have any questions about the life-o-rama of this week? Feel free to send me a message on Twitter or post in the forums and I'll read it over!
I'll be back next week with a budget look at Selesnya for Selesnya Week. Until then, may you send your life total to new heights!