Building_on_a_Budget

Jay's final article of the year means time to tie up those loose ends from Followed Footsteps.

Followed Footsteps: Transmutastic

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The letter I!t's shame that I've been so busy in my non-Magic life of late, because there has been a tremendous outpouring of feedback on the Message Boards, feedback to which I'd like to respond. There isn't enough room in today's article to address all the suggestions brought up over the past two weeks, but I'll try today to cover what I consider to be the key discussion points.

What? Just joining the column now and not sure what the heck I'm talking about? See, I wanted to build a fun, respectable House Dimir budget deck. The readers chose Followed Footsteps as the card around which I would build my deck. Last week I continued the evolution of the deck by settling on a “toolbox” transmute deck that can do lots of weird and unexpected things. Here is the deck as I left off last week:

Some people objected to the fact that it looks like a Ninja deck, or a comes-into-play deck, or a transmute deck, or a Blue/Black aggro-control deck. My response has been twofold. First, it is all of those things in addition to being a Followed Footsteps deck. Second--and this will always be my trump card in this column--it's my deck, and I'm building it the way I want to build it. If you want your own Followed Footsteps deck to be based on Spirits or Zombies, or to use a different second color, then I say spread your wings and fly, baby. These series have never meant to supply an off-the-shelf decklist so much as they have been to provoke you into wanting to build your own decks. At every turn I'm making choices that you might handle differently, and that's great. Post your decklists on the Message Boards and let everyone enjoy your creativity.

I'll come back to this point once more today, but for now let's see how version 1.4 plays in the Casual Decks room of Magic Online...

Game 26: Green/White Selesnya

His deck was different from my Selesnya Conclave deck, but he was packing Emperor Crocodile, which made me happy. Anyway, he started off with Llanowar Elves and Centaur Safeguard while I had Dimir House Guard to ninjutsu into Ninja of the Deep Hours, then I played Ravenous Rats. My Rats and Ninja held off his critters, even after he enchanted the Safeguard with Fists of Ironwood and got out Selesnya Evangel. As I was just about to transmute for Keening Banshee, I instead drew it and killed his Evangel. A second Ninja let me replay the Banshee, which was good because he played Veteran Armorer. Brainspoil killed his Siege Wurm, then we stared at each for a while. Things got a little desperate once he played Crown of Convergence with me at eight life, but I luckily drew into Highway Robber and Followed Footsteps. Robber tokens kept his forces at bay while I rebuilt my life, then I drew Honden of Seeing Winds and used my House Guard to fetch Honden of Night's Reach. I quickly took control of the game after that, killing his main threats, ignoring his tokens, and cruising in for the win.

Game 27: Black/Green Golgari

Might as well make my way through the other guilds, right? He had a quick Shambling Shell that I blocked with Highway Robber. I used Last Gasp to kill his Golgari Brownscale, then Keening Banshee killed his Golgari Guildmage. He tried Vinelasher Kudzu, but I had Clone on my Banshee to send it to the graveyard. He recycled his Brownscale to gain some life, but I put Followed Footsteps on my Banshee to ensure that I would kill whatever else hit the table (and I could always target the Brownscale in a pinch). I attacked twice more with flying Banshee and Banshee tokens, then Gravedigger found Highway Robber to win me the game.

Game 28: Blue/Black Dimir Followed Footsteps

A mirror match! Well, sort of. His deck used Clutch of the Undercity, along with a full compliment of Dimir Doppelgangers, Dimir Cutpurses, Dream Leashes, and Mindleech Masses... so maybe not so mirror-ful after all. Anyway, I'm not entirely sure how to summarize this game. Suffice it to say, he bounced and stole my early threats (which included a Highway Robber and a Cloned Highway Robber), then started to get his rare critters going. I got Ninja of the Deep Hours and Keening Banshee into play, putting him into single digits of life while I still hovered around twenty. He got Dimir Cutpurse. I put Followed Footsteps on it. He put Followed Footsteps on it, too. I got two tokens then killed it with Last Gasp. He got Mindleech Mass, I put Followed Footsteps on it and managed to get both Honden into play. His hand emptied, mine didn't, and I won easily with only twenty cards left in my library.

Game 29: Blue/Black Dimir Doppleganger

When my opponent transmuted a Grozoth on the third turn for another, I knew something funny was going on. I figured it must be a reanimator deck of some kind. I attacked with a Ninja of the Deep Hours and a Dimir Infiltrator for a while, putting Honden of Night's Reach into play. I was aware that the Honden might be helping his cause, but I hoped to make the discard eventually hurt. When he tried a Dimir Doppelganger and activated it to remove a Grozoth, I responded with Last Gasp. Plink, plink, plink went my attack. A second Doppleganger turned into a second Grozoth, but I drew and played Nekrataal to kill it. That was pretty much game, as my discard finally put him into topdeck mode while I drew an extra card per turn. Just in case, I put Followed Footsteps on my Ninja, triggering a concession from my opponent.

Game 30: Five-Color Hondens

My opponent had a Sakura-Tribe Elder and Civic Wayfinder while I got a Dimir Signet and third-turn Ninja of the Deep Hours. I killed his Wayfinder with Brainspoil, then Vinelasher Kudzu with Last Gasp, allowing my Ninja to draw me plenty of cards. He played Honden of Seeing Winds, and I transmuted a Dimir House Guard into Honden of Night's Reach. Then I transmuted another Brainspoil for my own Honden of Seeing Winds, destroying his. Followed Footsteps on my Ninja of the Deep Hours gave me three Ninja tokens. My opponent tapped out for Honden of Life's Web and Nullmage Shepherd (with only two creatures on the table). I smiled, played Clone to get my own Nullmage Shepherd, then Nekrataal to kill his Shepherd, then I destroyed his Honden with my (new) Shepherd. On the next turn I tapped creatures to kill his Genju of the Cedars, attacked with my Ninja tokens, and my opponent conceded.

Now that's more like it. My games are going long, which means that Followed Footsteps is becoming a much bigger part of my victories. I'm drawing enough cards to reliably find the Footsteps, and I'm able to transmute Brainspoil for it thanks to the rest of my early removal. The transmuting has been fantastic, and along with the Clones I find myself with a deck that's really difficult to predict. In short: Me likey. It's worth noting, though, that I've consistently been able to beat slower decks while having trouble with faster decks. It's too bad that I couldn't slip a Boros beatdown deck in there to test my mettle (and give me a full set of guild match-ups).

Feeling Transmutastic

I could probably stop now, shoring up the deck's weakness to aggressive decks in the sideboard. I've seen several suggestions on the Message Boards that I've liked, though, so I'll make a few minor tweaks to my deck and really embrace the toolbox feel.

OUT: 1 Island

IN: 1 Fellwar Stone

A few folks suggested that perhaps I could drop two Dimir Signets for two Fellwar Stones, allowing me to use activated abilities of creatures I copy via Clone and Followed Footsteps. Recall from my first article that I bemoaned the loss of Star Compass without realizing that Fellwar Stone was sitting around in 9th Edition. As you can imagine, I love the idea of Fellwar Stone. The reason I'm only adding one is because I also love the fact that my deck has run into relatively few mana issues through thirty games. Usually a two-color deck without good multicolor lands is in trouble, yet thanks to the Signets I can almost always cast my Dimir Infiltrators, my Black ManaBlack Mana cards like Keening Banshee, Nekrataal, and Highway Robber, and my Blue ManaBlue Mana Followed Footsteps. If anything, my deck has a slight tendency towards mana-flooding, which is the reason I feel comfortable dropping a land for a non-land mana source. If worse comes to worse I can transmute an Infiltrator for Fellwar Stone if the off-color mana is going to be relevant.

OUT: 1 Clone

IN: 1 Dimir House Guard

I love Clone and have never been sad to draw it, so this change hurts. Still, I see the wisdom of dropping the second copy to maximize my transmute options. The deck has a whopping ten possible targets for Dimir House Guard's ability, plus it's often a solid creature on its own. In order to reliably be able to transmute on Turn 3 and then play my chosen card on Turn 4, I think four House Guards make sense. Even still, I'll miss my second Clone.

Speaking of mana: If you were wondering about the lack of three-mana cards in my deck, the House Guards, Infiltrators, and Brainspoils effectively act as a third-turn play. I think most people knew this, but the question came up a few times on the Boards and over e-mail.

OUT: 1 Ravenous Rats

It's funny that when I had four Ravenous Rats in the deck, people decried my lack of creativity. When I dropped two of them for Honden of Night's Reach and Honden of Seeing Winds, people argued that I should add more Rats into my deck. I tend to think of Ravenous Rats as the most expendable card still in my deck, due in large part to Honden of Night's Reach. I'm keeping one Rats around because I've frequently found the situation where my opponent is clinging to one card in hand and I'm about to make an alpha strike, so it does end up being a fairly good transmute target (and it's always been a good target for Ninja of the Deep Hours).

IN: 1 Nezumi Graverobber

Speaking of good transmute targets, I have been resisting this addition since my first idea of using Followed Footsteps with comes-into-play creatures. Nezumi Graverobber was obviously a centerpiece of my Ratimation deck, and I worried that adding him to this deck pushed the deck into more of a reanimator feel than a cloning feel. What I have come to realize is that the Graverobber's graveyard-stripping ability is often as important as its Nighteyes the Desecrator ability thanks to dredge, soulshift, and reanimator decks seemingly everywhere in the Casual Decks room. This lone copy becomes an important target for Dimir Infiltrator's transmute ability against graveyard-focused decks and is never a wasted draw against other decks. The reanimating ability is a bonus, something my deck can certainly appreciate but one I don't expect to use overly much.

Here, then, is the deck I'm calling my final version:

When I say “final version,” I mean that I'm not intending to work on the deck any longer. Now that I'm done, this deck more than any other I've made seems to beg the question...

Did I Succeed?

So, let's remember my goals for this deck: My first goal was to make a fun deck. Is this deck fun? This is a sort of a trick question, since what's fun to one player is like gouging out one's own eyes for another. For me, though, I can say unequivocally that this deck is fun to play. It's strategically complex, rewarding me for outthinking my opponent. It's versatile, allowing me to never truly lose hope in a game. It does wacky things, frequently eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs” from spectators. It is, in fact, one of the more fun decks I've made in this column.

My second goal was to make a respectable deck. As several people have noted, the deck wins a good number of games. My record in playing version 1.5 so far is 17-7 in the Casual Decks room. The deck can still be too slow against super aggressive decks, and I can easily lose to Umezawa's Jitte. Still, it has beaten plenty of non-budget decks and has very few drastic losses. Here too I would say I met my goal.

My third goal, of course, was to make a budget deck. The deck uses five “bargain bin” rares, several decent uncommons (many of which are single copies), and a pile of commons. It falls well below the “30 tix” limit that Nate Heiss once employed in the predecessor to this column. Clearly this is a budget deck.

My fourth goal was to make a House Dimir deck. Although people grumbled that my initial decklist wasn't very “Dimir,” I think those voices have quieted. The deck is Black/Blue to the core, using no less than eleven cards with Dimir's signature mechanic of transmute. It's sneaky and it's tricky and it's underhanded. No, it doesn't mill away opponent's libraries, but as Aaron pointed out, that's just one path to victory for House Dimir. Fourteen of the cards even have “Dimir” in their card name, for crying out loud. Yes, I would say the deck met this goal as well.

The fifth goal was to build a deck around Followed Footsteps. Here, I think, lies the biggest uncertainty. On the upside, I kept four copies of Followed Footsteps in the deck throughout this experiment, and Footsteps in no way contradicts what the deck is trying to do. In fact, if you look through my game logs you'll see that, in the longer games, Followed Footsteps is often a key to my victories. Certainly this is a deck that can take full advantage of Footsteps without batting an eye, thanks mostly to a host of juicy comes-into-play creatures.

That said, several folks have pointed out that Followed Footsteps isn't exactly the central card of the deck. Imagine, for example, dropping three copies of Followed Footsteps for a fourth Brainspoil, one Dream Leash, and one Evacuation. The deck pretty much performs the same way, with Followed Footsteps still a viable option as a path to victory, yet opening the door for other pieces to the deck's “toolbox.” I don't think I would enjoy such a deck as much as the one I have, simply because I've found Followed Footsteps to be a) fragile enough to warrant multiple copies, and b) fun as all get-out. Still, I think it underscores the argument that perhaps Followed Footsteps is not the centerpiece of my deck. Indeed, I'm not sure the deck I've made has a true centerpiece.

It's possible that Followed Footsteps is not a natural fit for House Dimir, and belongs instead in a Blue/White or Blue/Green deck. It's also possible that I simply went about the whole centerpiece thing the wrong way by not focusing on either immobilizing my opponent's creatures via Clinging Darkness and Dehydration, or using big beefy Footsteps targets like Air Elemental. Or maybe five goals is too many for one deck evolution. Whatever the case, this fifth goal is the one in which I have serious doubts about my own success.

I hope, though, that those last two paragraphs don't detract from the very fun, respectable, budget, House Dimir deck I've built. The deck is terrific, and I will argue that four Followed Footsteps belong in the deck until I'm blue (and Black) in the face. To my mind, this experiment was definitely a success, both in its final product and as a learning experience.

It's also a deck that seriously needs a name. Speak up on the Message Boards with suggestions, and in my first article of the New Year I'll officially dub the deck. Remember that I like my deck names to be both catchy and to reflect the overall mechanics/strategy of the deck. Look back at past deck names to get an idea of what tends to make me smile.

Speculative Sideboard Time!

One of the things about a toolbox deck is that their sideboards look... weird. The idea is usually to add all of the tutor-able options that are good in some match-ups but less than ideal in others. The result is a lot of one-ofs and two-ofs in the sideboard, just as in the maindeck. I haven't had time to try out this deck in matches that use sideboards, so take my musing here with a large grain of salt. The sheer number of options available for a toolbox sideboard is such that you should really do some testing to figure out what cards you do and don't need in your toolbox. With those caveats in place, if I were piloting this deck into a Friday Night Magic or eight-person online tourney, I might start with a sideboard along these lines:

Sideboard: 2 Shred Memory

One option against Golgari and reanimator decks is to add more Nezumi Graverobbers. I'm less enamored with this idea than Shred Memory, a card much more efficient than Graverobber at killing graveyards and that can transmute for other options (like Last Gasp) in my deck when needed. Honestly, I wish I could use three in the sideboard but I just don't have the room.

Sideboard: 2 Mnemonic Nexus

I find that if I'm facing off against a dedicated milling deck that uses cards like Glimpse the Unthinkable, then I can only win the race about half of the time. If the opposing deck is creatureless (as opposed to using things like Soratami Mindsweeper and Vedalken Entrancer), then I usually lose the race. At least in theory, Mnemonic Nexus helps me restock my library and win the game with damage before my library is depleted. Like Shred Memory, I wish I had more than two copies because there is a real danger that both of these copies will get milled into my graveyard before I can ever use them.

Sideboard: 1 Nekrataal

To be honest, I would usually rather have a 2/2 flier than a 2/1 first striker. That said, there are some games in which Nekrataal is simply a better creature than Keening Banshee, and in those match-ups I imagine that the Banshee would come out for her scimitar-wielding cousin.

Sideboard: 1 Keening Banshee

...Whereas against Monoblack or mostly-Black decks, Keening Banshee would come in for Nekrataal.

Sideboard: 1 Manriki-Gusari

As a budget player, I pretty much loath Umezawa's Jitte. I've been decently successful up until this point by killing all of my opponent's creatures before they can become equipped with the Jitte. That's a pretty dicey strategy, though, and I would rather a true anti-Jitte answer was sitting in my deck waiting to be sought out. Of course, Manriki-Gusari also helps against any deck that relies heavily on Sunforger, Loxodon Warhammer, Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang or any other pieces of equipment.

Sideboard: 1 Cruel Edict

I'm mostly thinking Kodama of the North Tree here, but I suppose there are other cards like Kuro, Pitlord or somesuch that would be immune to most of my other removal (aside from Clone, the Legend Slayer).

Sideboard: 1 Eradicate

This is another tool against reanimator decks or against decks with really annoying creatures like Loxodon Hierarch. I appreciate that Eternal Witness is no longer in Standard, but I still take comfort in this fellow sitting in my sideboard.

Sideboard: 1 Hideous Laughter

It's nice that both Dimir House Guard and Dimir Infiltrator survive Hideous Laughter. The problem is that most of my other creatures don't, which is why I don't use Laughter maindeck. That said, my deck is vulnerable to quick creature rushes. Against any Selesnya Conclave deck, for example, Hideous Laughter is going to hurt my opponent a lot more than it hurts me.

Sideboard: 1 Shifting Borders

Shifting Borders
I don't relish the idea of giving someone two of my land, even if it does make Fellwar Stone more reliable. The reason I think it might be necessary, though, is because of cards like Quicksand, Svogthos, the Restless Tomb, Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion, Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree, Mikokoro, Center of the Sea, Miren, the Moaning Well, or any other opposing legendary lands. I've especially seen where this could be wonderful versus Svogthos and Miren. It sounds like merely a “neat trick,” but if timed correctly I think that Shifting Borders can be a game-winner.

Sideboard: 2 Honden of Night's Reach

Sideboard: 2 Honden of Seeing Winds

A “transformative sideboard” is one that allows a deck to change its core strategy and/or identity between games within a single match. Against some decks, chunks of my deck are going to be nearly useless. I'm thinking for example, of Last Gasp versus creatureless decks or Followed Footsteps in a deck stuffed full of creature removal. In these match-ups, I think it makes sense in turning the deck into a Black/Blue Honden toolbox deck. It's a theory that I would need to test, but I like the idea of a transformative sideboard as yet another one of the deck's tricks. It's so House Dimir.

Adding Money To The Deck

One of the cool things about this deck is that I rarely experience myself as playing a budget deck. That is, the deck performs well without sacrificing a great deal of power or tricks for its low monetary cost. Even still, there are a few rare cards that could potentially find their way into the deck. If you have access to any of the cards below and like the rough skeleton of a deck like mine, I would highly recommend trying them.

Watery Grave and Underground River

I said the same thing with Empire Maker, and I made my point explicitly in August. I imagine that I'll begin to repeat myself quite a bit in these last installments of deck evolutions. The most important rares in Standard right now are the rare dual-colored lands. Ravnica's are slightly better than those in 9th Edition, but both are awesome. If you have one, throw it in. If you have eight, throw them all in. Doing so would also allow you to use Fellwar Stone more liberally than Dimir Signet, freeing up at least one spot for another tutor-target.

Umezawa's Jitte

Again, I daresay you've heard this before. The so-called “Fork of Doom” is indeed a harbinger of doom versus many decks (including this one). If you are using creatures to win the game and have access to Umezawa's Jitte, the only reason not to use it is because your friends will hate you. Besides, it's a transmute target and works so well on either Dimir Infiltrator or Dimir House Guard.

Dimir Cutpurse

Dimir Cutpurse
I said earlier that the deck didn't really need a third-turn play because it can (and will) often transmute during the third turn. Here, though, is a card worthy of Turn 3. Dimir Cutpurse is a superb Followed Footsteps target and its discard/draw ability both helps protect the Footsteps and ensures you'll draw one. Just remember that adding this before you add something like Watery Grave is flirting with potential mana problems.

Cranial Extraction

Nothing says “mind invasion” quite like Cranial Extraction. In this deck, the Extraction helps get rid of cards that would kill Followed Footsteps and is a darned good target for Dimir House Guard's transmute ability. Like the Jitte, Cranial Extraction seems to have that “buzz kill” quality with friends, but if you're making a more tournament-focused deck I don't see why this card would stay out of either your maindeck or sideboard.

Spiffy One-Ofs

Speaking of transmute targets, there are a number of cards that I think could add to or supplement the deck's existing toolbox. Nezumi Shortfang is likely going to be better than Ravenous Rats. Dream Leash can dramatically swing a game, as can Meloku the Clouded Mirror. I'm not entirely sure that Sickening Shoal is worth a shot, but I do like that its converted mana cost is two and could replace a Last Gasp for added flexibility. There are certainly other two-, four- and five-mana rares worth exploring, but this list can get you started.

Final Thoughts For 2005

Apparently Scott Johns and the other Wizards of the Coast employees see the holiday season as a time where one favors family over work or something. As a result, today is--alas--my last article of 2005. The next three weeks you'll see reruns of my favorite articles since starting “Building on a Budget.” (The site returns with new content on Wednesday, 1/4, but make sure to check the feature article slot on Monday, January 2!)

Don't worry: You'll still get a Budget Dimir article, a BOAB Smackdown!, various Interludes, and a treatment of both the Golgari and Boros Legion. I'll also probably make a Mirage Constructed deck at some point since, you know, I made one of the preconstructed decks and all. Guildpact will be upon us all before I can blink, supplying three new guilds on which to focus. It's all so exciting that I think I need three weeks to get ready. And maybe spend some time with my wife. And kids. And parents. And... hey, maybe Scott was on to something after all.

Happy Holidays!

-jms

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