Building_on_a_Budget

Building without Birds.

Interlude: No Birds? No Problem!

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The letter I! recently stopped by the Trading Post on Magic Online and browsed around for Birds of Paradise. I had expected them to be expensive, but I hadn't expected most people to sell them for nineteen tickets apiece. For a set of four, that totals a whopping seventy-six tickets. You could buy two and a half Nate Heiss decks for that price! In paper Magic, the cost isn't terribly far behind.

Which is all to say that Birds of Paradise is not a “budget” card. I am going to assume that most deckbuilders on a budget have access to either zero or possibly one Birds in their collection, and I'm also going to assume that this is a point of some frustration. After all, the thing is just a stupid 0/1, incapable of winning a game on its own. What's the big deal, and, more importantly: Why can't you afford any to find out?!?

Today is a day dedicated to those of you starved for Birds of Paradise. Although nothing can quite compare to the real thing--which is why the price is so dang steep--you, as a budget deckbuilder, shouldn't feel paralyzed without them. My intent today is to explore the cheap mana-acceleration and mana-fixing options for today's green mage.

Two caveats about today. First, I'm only going to explore Standard-legal proxies to Birds of Paradise, both for simplicity's sake and because many budget players don't have access to even commons from older sets. Second, I'm obviously not saying that these suggestions are as good as Birds of Paradise, only that they're worthy budget alternatives. I think this second point is obvious, but I do want to be clear about my intent here.

Why Birds Are Good

Standard today, especially tournament-level Standard, is awash in green. Wherever green goes, it seems, so too goes Birds of Paradise. Consider these four, very different, decks that placed in the Top 4 of their respective French Regionals:




U/G Beats by Sébastien Lamoliate

Forget for a moment how stuffed full of rares most tournament decks are. My intent today isn't to discuss the viability of budget decks in serious tournaments (a topic for a future article, surely). Focus instead on the fact that all four of these decks use a full four copies of Birds of Paradise despite their highly varied strategies. One is a monogreen aggressive beatdown deck. One is a five-color “toolbox” control deck. One is a two-color control deck built around, among other things, Death Cloud. The last is a two-color aggro-control deck. All different colors. All different speeds. All different ways to win. Yet all want as many Birds of Paradise as possible. Why?

Birds of Paradise are so good, able to find their way into a variety of different decks, for three basic reasons (the first one's sort of two reasons, actually, but I want to talk about both together):

1) They Accelerate and Fix Your Mana - The obvious benefit of Birds of Paradise is that they can allow you to reach three mana on the second turn, four mana on the third turn, etc. Even better, they can tap for any color mana, meaning that they have a home in monogreen decks as well as any multicolor deck with a green base. A mana-boost and mana-fix in one package is something almost any green deck can use.

2) They're Creatures - Even though they're a paltry 0/1, don't discount the fact that Birds are creatures capable of attacking and blocking. If your deck uses Blanchwood Armor, Sword of Fire and Ice, or some other creature-enhancer, then Birds are a one-mana, flying threat (and take note: green doesn't get a lot of fliers). Even without any enhancement, they can be a chump-blocking delay tactic later in the game against an opposing Kokusho, the Evening Star or some such threat. Sure they're also susceptible to creature removal, but the versatility of a flying body is usually worth it.

3) They're Efficient At What They Do - Those first two reasons wouldn't be nearly so relevant if Birds of Paradise didn't cost a ridiculously-low one mana. After all, Wirewood Channeler was beefier and could usually produce more mana, so why wasn't it as ubiquitous in Standard when legal? The answer is that Wirewood Channeler couldn't come out until the mid-game, while Birds comes out the very first turn. It used to be that Birds and Llanowar Elves would fight for spots in decks, Elves getting played in more aggressive and greener decks with Birds getting played in the others. Now there is no competition; Birds of Paradise is green's cheapest, most dependable mana-acceleration. They are also by far green's most efficient flying creature. Point of fact, they are green's only flier in Online Standard besides Jugan, the Rising Star.

So that's why any green mage who owns Birds of Paradise tends to plop them into their decks. Now let's turn to what green mages who don't own any have at their disposal:

One-Shot Alternatives

I'll first cover the alternatives that you're only going to use once. This sounds bad, but remember that Birds of Paradise are highly fragile creatures with a tendency to die quickly. In some cases, then, these single shots are going to serve you as well or better than a one-toughness creature that has to wait a turn to be of use.

The Mana-Fixer Cantrip: Chromatic Sphere

Chromatic Sphere won't help you cast your expensive spells any faster, nor will it attack or block for you (barring March of the Machines nonsense). Instead, what you get is a one-shot mana-fix for the same price as a Birds. Doesn't sound worth it? What makes Chromatic Sphere a good option for five-color decks is the “cantrip” (draw a card) effect. A card is worth a lot in Magic, especially when it only costs you one additional mana to your normal gameplan. This makes Chromatic Sphere especially good for slower decks relying on three or more colors in them and a worthy beginning to a multicolor deck's mana curve.

Llanowar's Second-Cousin: Elvish Pioneer

In contrast, Elvish Pioneer won't give you an extra card nor do a thing to fix your mana. Instead, you get what the Sphere lacks: A one-shot mana-acceleration boost along with a creature capable of fighting. The Pioneer can be a little tricky since you need to have the extra land in your hand to make use of its comes-into-play effect. The good news is that even later in the game when you aren't holding land, it's still a 1/1 body capable of killing an opponent and opposing creatures. For most aggressive green decks, this combination of initial-boost and an efficient cost-per-power body makes it a Turn 1 play worth considering. If you think your deck can wait until the third turn and only cares about Forests, then Wood Elves is a consideration as well.

The Turn Three Fattie-Maker: Pentad Prism

Okay, it's usually more of a two-shot answer than a one-shot answer. The good news about Pentad Prism is that it is both mana-acceleration and a mana-fixer. It can also provide some explosive turns if you can get two counters on it during your second turn. Imagine a third-turn Bringer of the Blue Dawn, Arc-Slogger, Kodama of the North Tree, Blinding Angel, Meloku the Clouded Mirror or whatever other beefy bomb you might be holding. If you can find a way to use your Prism once you've “used it up,” a la Atog, Krark-Clan Ironworks, or the aforementioned March of the Machines, then Pentad Prism is an even shinier jewel to your two-or-more color deck.

There are at least two other good one-shot alternatives, but I'm going to save them for a bit later.

Non-Critter Alternatives

Next up are the options that will stay around longer than the above cards but have the downside that none are creatures. If your deck doesn't care about winning through combat damage, or you feel like your creature base is robust enough without any more, then these cards become very good alternatives.

The Die-Hard: Darksteel Ingot

I hesitated at first to include a card that costs three times as much as Birds of Paradise. But there's a good reason to use Darksteel Ingot in your deck as mana-acceleration. No, you won't get a creature, and you won't be able to accelerate your mana until the third turn (though you can use the Ingot the turn it comes into play, which will sometimes be useful). Instead you get the most durable mana-acceleration and mana-fixing ever printed in Magic. A few cards like Altar's Light will get rid of it, but most cards that remove it rarely get used in constructed decks. If you can wait to cast Darksteel Ingot, then, it will keep going long after your Birds of Paradise would have died. This also counts for a lot if your particular deck is going to be blowing up all the creatures in play anyway!

Land of Paradise: Fertile Ground

Fertile Ground is similarly sturdy thanks to artifact removal being a lot more common these days than enchantment removal. Compared to times of yore, land destruction has also been on the downswing (we'll see if that stays true with the debut of Thoughts of Ruin). This makes Fertile Ground a very viable alternative to a deck. You can play it on the second turn for four mana on Turn 3 (assuming you play a third land), or you can play it on your third land for two mana right away.

Artifacts of Plenty: Star Compass & Talismans

I suppose I'll tackle all of the two-mana artifacts--Star Compass, Talisman of Dominance, Talisman of Impulse, Talisman of Indulgence, Talisman of Progress, and Talisman of Unity--because all are functionally similar. Like Fertile Ground, they come out a turn slower than Birds of Paradise, but unlike Fertile Ground they'll give you mana on the second turn. The exception is Star Compass, which isn't active until the third turn but is more appropriate in a five-color deck than the Talismans. With the artifact removal common today--especially Viridian Shaman--these probably aren't the best cards to use if they're your only artifacts, but they are otherwise very solid ways to both accelerate and fix your mana.

“In The Right Deck” Alternatives

Each card I've discussed so far has had a type of deck it fits better in than others. That's even more true for the cards in this category, which look silly in a lot of decks but can be perfect given the right supporting cast.

Flower Power: Petalmane Baku

Generally speaking, Petalmane Baku is the worst of the Birds alternatives I'll cover today. It is better at attacking and blocking than Birds of Paradise, but it costs more mana and is incredibly slow and unreliable in terms of mana production. That said, it's not unreasonable to try out in a deck stuffed full of Spirit and/or Arcane cards, especially if what you want to do is accelerate to some spell--a fattie or Swallowing Plague-type effect--at the top of your mana curve. I will say, though, that if your deck is looking to boost its mana and is focused on Spirit and Arcane cards, then I would probably prefer some combination of Elder Pine of Jukai and Loam Dweller.

Green Mages Unite: Vine Trellis & Orochi Sustainer

If your deck is green or mostly-green, you don't lose a lot by adding Vine Trellis instead of Birds of Paradise. In fact, some people would argue that against aggressive decks, the one extra mana is almost always worth the three extra defense for blocking purposes. If you happen to have an aggressive deck yourself, using cards like Blanchwood Armor, then you may want the ability to attack via Orochi Sustainer. The Sustainer is obviously also a good choice if Snakes are a primary theme of your deck.

The Walking Felwar Stone: Sylvok Explorer

It's obviously highly variable what color mana Sylvok Explorer is going to produce for you. On the plus side, Standard is very green these days so you're likely to have at least one color you can use. That said, Sylvok Explorer usually only makes sense in a five-color deck. The reason is that you're better off with Vine Trellis or Orochi Sustainer if all you care about is green or colorless mana, and if you are in a two- or three-color deck you can't guarantee access to the colors you need.

The BoP Machine: Paradise Mantle

Oh those clever creative writers and their card names. Paradise Mantle looks very functionally similar to Birds of Paradise. It costs one mana to start using, just like the Birds. In fact, the entire idea is that you can turn any of your creatures into a Birds of Paradise with Paradise Mantle. That's where the problem comes in, though. To use Paradise Mantle well, you need creatures to equip. The decks that will be able to use the Mantle, then, are those with a) a lot of creatures in them, and b) some creatures you don't mind keeping away from combat. Not a lot of decks fit both two criteria, which is why Paradise Mantle hasn't been used very often. Off the top of my hand, some creatures I can see as Mantle-worthy are things like Orochi Leafcaller, Ravenous Rats, and Leonin Elder, creatures that either are more valuable alive and inert on the board or who have already largely served their purpose by being cast.

The Land Man: Sakura-Tribe Scout

In theory, it costs the same as Birds of Paradise, is better in combat, and will give you a nice mana-acceleration boost during the first few turns until you run out of land in your hand. Usually, though, it won't be a huge boon because it can neither make mana on its own nor search land out of your library. Having to tap to use its ability is a big bummer, too. However, there is hope: If you are playing cards like Kodama's Reach, Seek the Horizon, Moonfolk, etc. then the stock on Sakura-Tribe Scout goes up considerably, since you are likely to have land in your hand after the early game. In such a deck that plays yo-yo with its land, this will arguably be a bigger help than Birds.

Generally-Best Alternatives

Finally, although some of those alternatives are going to be right for some decks, I think the best place to start your mana-acceleration and mana-fixing contemplation is with the below four cards. These four are usually going to satisfy your deck's needs, with the above cards adding to or enhancing those needs.

One-Shot Sureshot: Wayfarer's Bauble

Sure it's a one-shot option that costs you two more mana in investment than Birds of Paradise, and it also isn't going to attack and block for you. On the other hand, it's the best one-mana, one-shot option in Standard today and both accelerates and fixes your mana. The advantage of Wayfarer's Bauble over Birds of Paradise are twofold: First, it thins a land from your deck, meaning you have one less land to draw later in the game when you're hoping for “business” spells. Second, you can use it even when your Forests are hiding (as a way of finding said Forest, if needed).

As a side note, this second reason also makes Wayfarer's Bauble good mana acceleration for decks like my Bad Religion deck that don't use any green at all:

Reach For Your Land: Kodama's Reach

I'm only discussing two three-mana alternatives, because if I'm going to spend three times as much mana as Birds of Paradise, my threshold for quality is very high. Viridian Joiner and Fyndhorn Elder are examples of cards that might be valuable for your deck, but also serve different purposes than the quick mana-acceleration and/or fix of Birds. I realize this is a fine distinction, but I would rather today's list include the Ingot and Reach than exclude them.

I've already crowed about Kodama's Reach in my recent Kamigawa Commons Review. Suffice it to say, it serves as a powerful boost to mana-acceleration, mana-fixing, and land-thinning alike. Like Darksteel Ingot, it's not as ubiquitous as Birds of Paradise because it is typically better in a slower deck than an all-out aggressive deck (though that's not strictly true... check out Giorgi Floran's deck above). Kodama's Reach does so much for so comparatively little that it will continue to show up in lots of decks as long as it's legal in Standard.

Sakura-Tribe's Superman: Sakura-Tribe Elder

In the same commons review, I described Sakura-Tribe Elder as the single best common in Standard today. Cynical readers might look at the French Regional decks and point out that each of those decks uses Birds of Paradise and Sakura-Tribe Elder, which doesn't exactly make the Elder a Birds replacement. This is a fair point, and underscores the fact that if you play Forests you should almost automatically include the Elder into your decklists. The question then becomes whether your deck does what you want it to do with Elder alone, or whether you need the boost of additional cards as well.

I haven't mentioned Rampant Growth today because Sakura-Tribe Elder is almost strictly better. The reasons I can see using Rampant Growth is because your deck already has four Elders and you want some additional effect for the same mana. Even then, though, I think it's worth waiting a turn for Kodama's Reach instead unless your deck has a significant glut of spells that cost four mana. Which is to say that I don't think Rampant Growth is a bad card, but I do think that currently there are better options.

The Ultimate Mana-Fixer: Orochi Leafcaller

Here is what Viridian Acolyte always aspired to be. If what your deck cares about is getting access to its various colors of mana, then forget acceleration and rely on Orochi Leafcaller. The Leafcaller is more aggressive than Birds as a 1/1 and can filter any of your green mana into whatever mana you desire. This makes Orochi Leafcaller a very valuable package for a one-mana common, and good in either green decks trying to splash additional colors or balanced two-color decks using green. The fact that it's a Snake sometimes matters as well. Maybe looking at a format without access to Birds of Paradise will be useful to illustrate:

Wrapping Up

So... What do you miss by not having Birds of Paradise in your deck? Well, the answer to that question is clearly deck-specific. As I look at the options above, though, I would make two observations:

1) I think first and foremost that there is nothing that can replace the “cheap flier” aspect of Birds of Paradise. Your Blanchwood Armored or equipped creatures are either going to be ground-pounders or you are going to be dipping into another color to find efficient fliers. This is one place in which Birds feel unique and uniquely good. Luckily, this is also one of the more minor reasons for playing Birds of Paradise, since usually you want them in decks for their mana-acceleration and mana-fixing abilities.

2) With regards to those mana-acceleration and mana-fixing abilities, I think there are very good alternatives to Birds of Paradise. What you lose is the one card from your collection that is a solution to all problems. Now you need to be thoughtful about your deck's needs. Aggressive two-color deck? You probably want Orochi Leafcaller or Elvish Pioneer. Slower five-color deck without creature-enhancers? Darksteel Ingot and/or Kodama's Reach will probably suffice. The solution to make your deck run smoothly is out there, but as a budget deckbuilder you need to be better at deck diagnosis.

As with each of my “Interlude” articles so far, today has been a bit of an experiment. Please tell me what you think on the Message Boards. Did you like this “budget alternative” approach? If not, what could I have done differently? If so, what other “must have” rares would you like to see showcased? Keep letting me know what you want and I'll keep adjusting accordingly.

Think hard and have fun,

-jms

p.s. Here's a deck that's been performing well online for me that applies some of the principles of today:

Mean Green This deck has no rare cards.

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