Building_on_a_Budget

Jay's deck takes a new twist, and continues to do surprisingly well!

Followed Footsteps: Gasps, Guards, and Gods

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The letter I!'m not sure I fully appreciated how difficult this deck evolution would be. The difficulty isn't due to Followed Footsteps, the card you've chosen for me to base my House Dimir deck upon. No, Followed Footsteps is a cool card with lots of juicy deckbuilding possibilities. What's difficult is keeping this evolution both interesting and unique from what I've done previously. If I push too hard on the Ninja angle, I get a Blue/Black Ninja deck. If I push too hard on the Spirits angle, I have something much like my Thief of Time deck. If I push too hard on the reanimation angle, it starts to resemble either Ratimation or Dead World. If I push too hard on the control elements of the deck, it starts to drift away from the focus on Followed Footsteps. Add to this list the fact that I'm bound to a Black/Blue deck, Standard cardpool, and a deck that hopes to embody the ideals of House Dimir, and I find myself with a lot of dead ends in my thinking.

Then again, the deck is already fun to play and winning more than I expected. I'm confident that with some playtesting the deck I outlined last week can become something that's fun, respectable, budget-friendly, and that stands on its own as a deck apart from others I've done.

Speaking of my deck, here is where I left off last week:

Followed Footsteps v.1.1

The Message Boards last week were all over the map in terms of suggestions. “Drop Keening Banshee!” “More creatures!” “Yay Mark of Eviction!” “Boo Clone!” “More control!” “Change colors!” “More tutors!” “Boo Mark of Eviction!” “Yay Clone!” “More discard!” “Add Daring Apprentice!” “More auras!” “More Keening Banshee!” “Add countermagic!” You get the idea. At first I was a little troubled by the variance in opinion since I thought it signified people not “getting” my deck. Then I realized that I wasn't sure I quite “got” my own deck yet, partly because I was internally struggling with those mental dead ends I mentioned before. Some decks--like Empire Maker, for example--fall together effortlessly while others flail for an identity initially. This deck is still flailing, chock full of random cards and ill-fitting ideas. That's a fine place to be at this point, and it's my job as the deckbuilder to forge an identity for this weird creation I've begun.

When unsure where to go next with a deck, I find playtesting to be an invaluable source of ideas. So, here we go...

Game 11: Red/Green Land Destruction

The game got off to an odd start because I kept a creatureless hand. I played land and a Dimir Signet while my opponent played land and nothing else. On the fifth turn he tried Shard Phoenix, and when I tried to enchant it with Followed Footsteps he sacrificed it in response. After that he started blowing up my land, focusing on the Blue mana. A flurry of Stone Rains, Demolishes, and Sunder From Withins took down six of my Islands and two Signets over about four turns. The bad news was that I was left with only four Swamps. The good news was that my opponent had emptied his hand. I transmuted Brainspoil to Throat Slitter and cast it after drawing a fifth Swamp. My opponent played an Elvish Warrior, and I topdecked an Island to put Mark of Eviction on it. We played like that for a while, him killing any Islands I drew while I played Black creatures. Lost beneath a pile of cards was Shard Phoenix, and I guess my opponent forgot about him. I'm pretty sure I would have lost had the Phoenix re-entered play, but as it stood I played a series of 2/2s and won over about twelve turns.

Game 12: Monoblack Aggro

He played a second-turn Nezumi Graverobber, then Umezawa's Jitte. I amused myself by accelerating to a Followed Footsteps on his Graverobber. He used a Jitte counter each turn to kill my token, but eventually he flipped into Nighteyes the Desecrator and so did I to kill his critter. He played a second Graverobber and I used Brainspoil on it. He used Soulless Revival so I played a second Brainspoil. He then played Hand of Cruelty and equipped it with the Jitte. I played another Footsteps on his guy, then used Clone to give myself two Black Samurai. I may have climbed back into making it a respectable game if not for a Rend Flesh on one of my Hands, allowing him to kill the second with Jitte counters and cruise in for the win. Man I hate playing against Umezawa's Jitte.

Game 13: Black/Red Control

His deck was weird and cool. On one hand it was built around Hunted Horror and lots of three-damage burn. On the other hand it used the Underworld Dreams-Teferi's Puzzle Box combo. We had played last week when I was in my “fun zone” of games (I log all games each week until my article is finished, then I play a slew of unlogged games until the next week). Last time he beat me in a long, drawn-out game. This time I got Dimir Infiltrator, while he played Hunted Horror and killed one of my tokens with Volcanic Hammer. I used Brainspoil on his Horror then attacked for four. On the next turn he played Underworld Dreams while I snuck Ninja of the Deep Hours into play, then replayed my Infiltrator. He played a second Underworld Dreams, and I snuck a second Ninja into play. The question for me was whether to draw cards from my Ninja or not. I decided not to since he was at four life and I wanted to stay out of Puzzle Box range. Sure enough, he played the Box next turn and I won at four life.

Game 14: White/Red Boros Aggro

Oooo... Close game. He got out a Veteran Armorer and a Boros Recruit while I played Mark of Eviction and Drake Familiar. He played a second Recruit, and I used Clone to get my own Veteran Armorer. After that I had enough mana for Followed Footsteps, so I enchanted his newly-cast Skyknight Legionnaire. Four Legionnaire tokens later, we had battled back and forth. He had a Firemane Angel in his graveyard, a Sunforger on the table, no creatures, and seven life. I had eight points of offense and an empty hand, so I swung at him. He used Lightning Helix on one of my critters, then topdecked a second Skyknight Legionnaire to attack for six and the win. It was one of those classic “I would have won the next turn except he drew...” sort of games.

Game 15: Green/Red Fatties

I liked his deck, which used quick mana like Elves of Deep Shadow and Llanowar Elves to ramp up to things like Moss Kami and Heartless Hidetsugu, among others. He got out two Elves and an O-Naginata while I had two Ravenous Rats and a Ninja of the Deep Hours. One Rats died to a blocking Elves while I kept bouncing the other with Mark of Eviction. Brainspoil killed his first Hidetsugu, then Throat Slitter killed an Elves. I was clearly in the driver's seat at this point. Another Hidetsugu hit the table, but a Clone killed it and my Ninja cruised to victory. At the last moment I drew a Footsteps to give myself one Ninja of the Deep Hours token.

Gasping For Help

At this point I'm not drawing Followed Footsteps enough and it's not factoring into enough of my games. I'll explain why I think this is so below, because it's time for me to make some changes to how the deck plays.

IN: 4 Last Gasp

So. I've noticed that my deck loses to fast, aggressive decks. Of my five losses in fifteen games, all of them have come at the hands of either pure aggro decks or aggro-control decks (also of note is that two came at the hands of Umezawa's Jitte). I've also noticed that I often don't transmute Brainspoil because of an urgent need to kill creatures and stay alive rather than get Followed Footsteps rolling. These two observations suggest that I need some early defense against creature swarms, and one of the best removal spells to come Black's way in a long time is Last Gasp. Even better, Last Gasp is a removal spell that I can fetch via Dimir Infiltrator. I really like that the Infiltrator now is not only a Ninja enabler, but can also fetch Last Gasp and Ravenous Rats, making it a card I will almost never be sad to draw. I can even see times when I will attack with the Infiltrator, ninjutsu out a Ninja of the Deep Hours, then transmute the Infiltrator for Last Gasp to remove a blocker the next turn.

OUT: 1 Drake Familiar

It was a nice idea, but ultimately underpowered. Drake Familiar doesn't do enough, either for me or against an opponent, to warrant a slot. With Last Gasp in the deck, I also have a hard time envisioning using transmute to find this lone copy. In a deck with comes-into-play enchantments like Flight of Fancy or Fists of Ironwood I can see Drake Familiar working, but it's not appropriate for the deck I'm making.

OUT: 3 Mark of Eviction

I really wanted Mark of Eviction to be Unsummon. I had even convinced myself that it was almost as good as Unsummon because of its ability to reassign Followed Footsteps. In reality, it turns out to be really, really slow and not worth the effort. The Mark still turned out to be pretty useful from time to time, but Unsummon would have been better in almost every instance. I have not yet cared about reassigning a Footsteps because Footsteps is slow and fragile enough to not mess with once it's working. Since reassigning Followed Footsteps isn't a priority, neither Drake Familiar nor Mark of Eviction feel worth the effort. Who knew I would ever experience Unsummon envy?

OUT: 1 Island
IN: 1 Swamp

With four Blue cards making way for four Black cards, my land needs a little adjustment. The hope is that I'll still reliably be able to get a second-turn Dimir Infiltrator, but more important at this point is having the mana to cast Last Gasp early when I need it to stay alive.

Here, I hope, is a more survivable version of the deck that can actually transmute for Followed Footsteps:

Followed Footsteps v.1.2

Let's see if these changes have made any difference...

Game 16: Blue/Red Ire of Kaminari

A deck packed with creature removal like mine never likes to see a creatureless deck. Luckily I ended up having about the best hand to combat his deck as I could manage. I started off with a Ravenous Rats, then popped it back into hand via Ninja of the Deep Hours. A second Rats followed, then a second Ninja. My opponent rightly saw the threat as the discard, so he used a Spiraling Embers on one Rats while my other guys launched their assault. A third Ninja allowed me to replay the remaining Rats, then I used Clone targeting Ravenous Rats to empty his hand. He untapped, played Ideas Unbound, then hit me with Ire of Kaminari down to four life. He was tapped out, though, and I won on my next attack.

Game 17: Monoblack Spirits

He got a Bile Urchin, Cruel Deceiver, and Thief of Hope. I had Dimir Infiltrator, then Ninja of the Deep Hours, then Keening Banshee to kill his Thief. He played Nekrataal to off my Ninja, so I returned my Banshee to hand with another Ninja then killed his Nekrataal. We did the exact same thing next turn, him with a second Nekrataal and me with a third (and final) Ninja. Gravedigger brought a dead Ninja back to hand, which let me do the Keening Banshee trick again. I had drawn a ridiculous amount of cards at this point, and my opponent was taxed out. He played Devouring Greed to bring himself up to eight life and me down to twelve, but I still killed him on my next attack. On the turn I won, I finally drew Followed Footsteps.

Game 18: White/Red Weenie

Wow what a close game. He had a Samurai of the Pale Curtain that hit me twice before I could kill it with Nekrataal. After that he played Hand of Honor, Hand of Honor, Manriki-Gusari, Manriki-Gusari. At that point I was pretty sure I was dead, but I kept at it. I got two Ninja of the Deep Hours into play and used Clone to get my own Hand of Honor. He would equip on Hand with both Manriki-Gusaris, attack, then equip the untapped Hand as a defender. I just threw attackers at him, using ninjutsu to play Ravenous Rats a few times and empty his hand (his last card was Wrath of God). Two Highway Robbers kept me ahead of the damage race, and then Followed Footsteps on one of his Hands swung the game to my favor. Including Clone, I managed to pump out four Hands on my side of the table. Although he kept attacking with his enchanted creature in hopes that I would kill it, I took the damage and managed one final suicide blitz to win at four life.

If I can beat two equipped Hand of Honors, I'm feeling pretty good about my deck.

Game 19: Monoblue Control

I went first (as a sidenote, I haven't yet decided whether I'd rather play or draw with this deck... it's something I'm keeping an eye on, but in the meantime it's a nice feeling to not care if I win the die roll or not), and played Dimir Infiltrator, then Ravenous Rats. My opponent played Sleight of Hand, Telling Time, four Islands and pretty much that was it. I hit him for two a turn, casting one threat per turn to keep him occupied with counterspells. He eventually got low enough on life to tap out for Sakashima the Impostor, targeting my Infiltrator. I played Last Gasp at the end of his turn to kill it, then untapped and played Gravedigger for one of my countered creatures. He drew something other than an Island and conceded.

Game 20: Black/White Weenie

I couldn't quite figure out his deck, but I guess it didn't matter because he got stuck on three land and I mowed through him. I had Dimir Infiltrator and Ravenous Rats going for a while. Then my Keening Banshee killed his Infectious Host. His Razortooth Rats blocked my Rats, then I played another. My second Rats became Ninja of the Deep Hours. On my last attack, he cast Angelic Blessing on my Banshee as a sign of defeat.

Guarding The House

Some people, I'm sure, are now lamenting the fact that my deck plays like some freaky hybrid between a Ninja deck, a generic Blue/Black aggro-control deck, and a Followed Footsteps deck. I can't tell you how pleased I am that the deck is performing in this way. It is like a Ninja deck and a removal-heavy deck and a Footsteps deck. Yet it's more versatile than any one of these decks. It's precisely that blur-your-eyes-and-see-something-different aspect that to me feels very House Dimir and makes the deck fun to play. In fact, I'm thinking at this point that I can push the transmute angle a bit more to clean up the messy four-mana slot in my current list.

But first...

OUT: 1 Throat Slitter

Throat Slitter has been a significant factor in about three of my games thus far. I've transmuted Brainspoil for it once against a deck that had destroyed all of my Islands. Thus Throat Slitter is a nice card in my deck without really looking outstanding. Between Last Gasp, Brainspoil, Nekrataal, and Keening Banshee, I would like to think that I have more than enough creature removal without Throat Slitter hanging out in the deck and crowding things. I would still like to find a five-mana card that I can sometimes tutor for in match-ups where Brainspoil is useless, but this doesn't feel to me like the right card.

IN: 1 Ninja of the Deep Hours

My other Ninja, on the other hand, has been outstanding. Glance through my twenty game logs and you'll see the words “Ninja of the Deep Hours” repeated over and over again. They are the one good source of card-drawing currently in the deck, card-drawing that can help me find creature removal, mana, and Followed Footsteps. In about four paragraphs, I will also have a means for tutoring for my Ninja in a pinch. Viva la Deep Hours!

Now, some grumpy readers out will cry “But you've used them in a deck already!” Yep. They're good. I've used Sakura-Tribe Elder, Ravenous Rats, Hearth Kami, Zombify, and Sensei's Divining Top in multiple decks too. I use these cards over and over again because they are excellent tools for a budget deckbuilder. In the same ways that non-Budget deckbuilders want to use Birds of Paradise in any Green-based multicolor deck, so to do I want to use Ninja of the Deep Hours in a Blue-based deck with comes-into-play effects. Highlighting these cards is part of the reason I write my budget set reviews. To me, these repetitions don't doom me to conventional decks, but rather are a way to bolster and support unconventional ideas like Followed Footsteps.

Speaking of cards I often use...

IN: 1 Ravenous Rats

Unlike Ninja of the Deep Hours, I'm not entirely sure that my four Ravenous Rats will be sticking around in my deck. Oh, they're good with Ninja of the Deep Hours, Gravedigger, and Followed Footsteps, but it feels to me like this deck should be striving for something... more. I'm seriously pondering at this point whether Festering Goblin wouldn't be a better card for this slot.

So why add a fourth Rats now? Simply because I've noticed that one of the ways to keep Followed Footsteps (and the creature it's enchanting) on the table is by emptying my opponent's hand. This is when I'm glad that Footsteps costs five mana and is slow, because I can sometimes whittle away answers my opponent might have to it before I play Followed Footsteps. I don't think I want to make the commitment to Zuberas that Ashen-Skin Zubera would entail. Ghost-Lit Stalker, Kemuri-Onna, and Okiba-Gang Shinobi are too slow. Mindslicer is wrong. Hypnotic Specter and Nezumi Shortfang cost too much. As much as I hate to admit it, Ravenous Rats might be the one card to help me keep Followed Footsteps alive through discard (this doesn't address the idea of countermagic, something I also may use in this slot).

IN: 3 Dimir House Guard

Several people on last week's Boards noted the crowding of four-mana cards in my deck. Currently there are a whopping thirteen four-mana creatures, and I just added a fourteenth above. Dimir House Guard lets me slightly lower the total number of cards while also acting as a three-mana tutor to set up a fourth-turn play. Even better, the House Guard is a decent Ninja enabler and is one of the only cards (along with Dimir Infiltrator) that can survive things like Hideous Laughter, Pyroclasm, Shard Phoenix, Shock, and the like. Thus I think both the transmute ability and the creature itself will be relevant in my deck, which is exactly what I want out of a deck that looks to be staking its identity on versatility.

Here is what Dimir House Guard's inclusion allows me to do:

OUT: 1 Keening Banshee
OUT: 1 Nekrataal
OUT: 1 Highway Robber
OUT: 1 Gravedigger

None of these creatures are ones I feel comfortable dropping from my deck entirely, yet I've also felt that two copies of each were way too much. Sometimes Keening Banshee is better removal, and sometimes Nekrataal. Highway Robber is sometimes the perfect Followed Footsteps target and other times too slow. Gravedigger is invaluable in letting me climb back into long games but is sometimes caught in my hand without a target. Now each of these cards--along with Clone and Ninja of the Deep Hours--is sitting in my deck as a toolbox ready to answer whatever situation I encounter.

Why not drop Clone, a card much maligned on last week's Boards? Put simply, I love Clone and have never been sad to draw it. It complements the other creatures in the deck, gives me loads of strategic options, acts as a four-mana Hero's Demise, and can often give me a better creature than I otherwise have in my deck. I can almost guarantee that my two copies of Clone are sticking around until the final decklist.

Here is my transmute-happy Followed Footsteps deck:

Followed Footsteps v.1.3

Ah, but how does it play?

Game 21: White/Green Spirits

This was a long game, and one full of spectators. I played land until my opponent played Budoka Pupil, at which point I responded with Last Gasp. Two Haru-Onna followed, but I killed one with Keening Banshee, allowing my Ravenous Rats to turn into Ninja of the Deep Hours. Scaled Hulk followed for my opponent. It hit me two times, then I blocked with Ravenous Rats two turns in a row. My opponent played Kami of the Honored Dead, so it was looking pretty bad for me. I killed the Hulk with Brainspoil, then enchanted his flying Kami with Followed Footsteps and killed his second Haru-Onna with a replayed Keening Banshee (I had snuck a second Ninja into play at some point). My opponent channeled Shinen of Life's Roar on his Kami so that I would block with my Kami of the Honored Dead token and Banshee to kill it. He chose to get Scaled Hulk back via soulshift, but I transmuted Dimir House Guard for Nekrataal. When I played Highway Robber and enchanted it with Followed Footsteps, my opponent conceded.

Game 22: Blue/Green/Black Control

He started out with a Sensei's Divining Top and I countered with Dimir Infiltrator and Ravenous Rats. He discarded a Perplex to the Rats, letting me know he had Black in his deck. My opponent played Sakura-Tribe Elder, which I killed with Keening Banshee. Then he played Rending Vines on my Dimir Signet and I inwardly cheered as the next turn I untapped and played Followed Footsteps on my Ravenous Rats. My opponent played another Elder, then Recollect on his Rending Vines. With a Rats token coming into play every turn, though, he could never get five cards in hand so the Footsteps kept on going. His hand whittled down to a single card, I snuck two Ninja of the Deep Hours into play, and my opponent conceded.

Game 23: Monoblack Control

I don't know why I keep playing against slow decks, but I'm loving it. I missed a couple of land drops early in this game, although I managed a Dimir Infiltrator and Ravenous Rats. He got his own Ravenous Rats, then a Nezumi Graverobber. I tried to sneak in a Ninja of the Deep Hours, but it died to Last Gasp. My Last Gasp killed his Graverobber, then our Rats traded in combat. Things got interesting when he played Ghost-Lit Stalker and I was facing losing my hand to discard. I used Clone to get my own Ghost-Lit Stalker, then played Highway Robber. My Robber kept attacking while our two Stalkers went to work. I got a Ninja onto the table, but it got Eradicated. My opponent topdecked a Hand of Cruelty and played it. Finally I found mana to transmute a Dimir Houseguard for Keening Banshee, killing his Hand. Their work done, our two Stalkers traded in combat, then I played a Ravenous Rats to get my opponent's new card in hand--Maiga, Traitor to Mortals. Another opposing Nezumi Graverobber died to another Last Gasp, and I won after two attacks. As insurance against Hideous Laughter, I was happy to be holding my Gravedigger in hand.

Game 24: Black/Green Golgari

I always figured that I would get manascrewed with this deck because of the wonky mana requirements I'm asking of it. What I didn't expect was to ever be completely mana flooded. I kept a hand with five land, Dimir Infiltrator, and Ninja of the Deep Hours. Both entered play, but my opponent had Last Gasp for the Ninja. After that all I did was draw land and Dimir Signets. My opponent played Stinkweed Imp, Golgari Guildmage, and Mortipede. I finally drew a Clone, so I copied his Stinkweed Imp to hopefully stave off his attack. Next turn my opponent played Gleancrawler, making me curse the timing of my Clone. More mana followed for me, and my opponent got a Loxodon Warhammer on his Mortipede to smash me to bits.

Game 25: Black/Green Control

This game might have been fun if my opponent wasn't such a jerk. I kept a hand with three Islands and pretty solid stuff. He started out with a second-turn Umezawa's Jitte. I drew nothing but another Island for the next four turns, but my opponent had a similar problem and played out all land with no creatures. I found a Dimir Signet to play Dimir Infiltrator, and a Naturalize killed my Signet. The Infiltrator turned into Ninja of the Deep Hours, which died to Rend Flesh. I found another Signet, which replayed my Infiltrator before dying to Naturalize. A second Ninja got in one hit before falling to Nekrataal. I thankfully topdecked a Swamp to kill his Nekrataal with Last Gasp. For the next six turns or so, my opponent used two Creeping Molds to kill the Swamps I drew and I managed Black mana in just enough time to kill whatever creature he drew. It was a race to see who could recover faster. My deck was kind to me, giving me another Signet and then Swamps. I emptied his hand with two Ravenous Rats and killed a Royal Assassin and two Sakura-Tribe Elders with removal. When I had him down to nine life, my opponent manaburned for ten to essentially concede. Somehow Umezawa's Jitte didn't get a single counter from Turn 2 through Turn 20.

I'm still not thrilled with the Ravenous Rats, so I'm willing to try another option...

OUT: 2 Ravenous Rats

The thing about Ravenous Rats is that they are the one card that feels to be pulling my deck into boring, familiar territory. Only once have I found the Rats safe enough to enchant with Followed Footsteps. Yes, they protect the Footsteps somewhat, but they also lack the sex appeal I want from this slot. I'll keep two as additional Ninja and Gravedigger targets, but I may eventually drop to one that can be tutored for in a pinch.

IN: 1 Honden of Night's Reach
IN: 1 Honden of Seeing Winds

Bet you didn't see that one coming, eh? In case you were wondering, this is the “Gods” reference in the title (I was stretching, but hey... I needed a third G).

Here's my thinking: If discard is truly a way to protect Followed Footsteps, then I would rather have reliable discard than a one-shot deal like Ravenous Rats (understanding, of course, that the Rats sometimes get played multiple times each game). The idea of transmuting into Hondens occurred to me as I was looking for a five-mana card that would be useful when Brainspoil is useless. How convenient that both the Black and Blue Honden happen to fall into the converted mana cost that I can fetch via transmute. This change pushes the manacurve of my deck higher, which is a concern. For now, though, I'm willing to try it as a wacky experiment to see if it's worth slowing my deck down.

Somehow the addition of the Hondens pushes the deck into having an identity for me. Now my deck is about Followed Footsteps, but only insofar as Followed Footsteps is a way to be strategically versatile and do weird things.

Ponder this decklist, then speak up on the Message Boards. The last few weeks have been superb in terms of people really digging into my decks and offering suggestions, and I hope this pattern continues. I've said it before but it bears repeating: Your feedback is invaluable, both in my own deck pondering and in the direction of this column.

Next week... the dramatic Dimir-y conclusion!

Think hard and have fun,

-jms

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