Friday 16 February 2018

Traverse Shadow .dec

Death's ShadowFollowing on in the theme of the PT RIX top 8 deck cube adaptations we have this little gem. I didn't expect this to translate across nearly as well as it did but it turned out to be quite the power house and a delight to pilot. To be fair my list was rammed with some pretty premium cards that you might be pushed to pick up all together in one event but the archetype does have a nice long list of backup cards that give your build safety and options. I thought this deck would suffer from lack of redundancy in the more build around aspects (Death's Shadow) while also having what initially felt like counter synergies (delve plus delirium). Having both delirium cards and a bunch of delve cards does have drawbacks but they do also have overlap. Mostly it just makes the deck even more complicated and it is surprisingly hard to begin with! The deck has enough selection, recursion and cycling cards that you see your key cards more than enough to merit building around them.

What really surprised me about this deck was how resilient it was. I was expecting it to be like some aggro combo deck that would have some bonkers starts and occasionally kill out of nowhere and it was those things but it also did very well in the longer games. It had enough value and interaction to go as long as the match up required. The modern versions of these decks typically play red for Temur Battlerage however in cube you can run Berserk instead which is better and in your colours! Going four colours in cube is a far far bigger deal than in modern both in demand for lands in the draft as well as not having sufficient space for all the colour sources you need in the main deck. Cutting down from 4 to 3 colours makes this deck something you can realistically expect to play in cube. My list is also rather more blue than the modern versions as I needed some more things to act like Baubles and Street Wraiths and some cheap blue cantrips get that done well.

Decks with delirium themes are tricky to balance as you are caring about card types which is just extra dimensions of complexity on top of things like curve, colour balance, and so forth. Guess what other kinds of mechanic add dimensions of complexity to the build? Yup, delve! You need a fine mix of delve cards and graveyard filler. I was struggling sufficiently with juggling all the various elements in the build that I wound up running 41 cards which is something I have managed to avoid since being schooled by Paulo Vito Damo da Rosa on the subject. While I think my list has plenty of opportunity to be tuned in terms of the cards used it ran like a dream in terms of the delirium and delve aspects. The number of lands felt right too (although I messed up the colour ratios...). I always had delirium on cue and delve fuel but it was always super close and every single exile from the bin choice felt highly relevant.

Mishra's Bauble

27 Spells

Mishra's Bauble
Urza's Bauble

Traverse the Ulvenwald
Death's Shadow
Inquisition of Kozilek

Mental Note
Traverse the UlvenwaldGitaxian Probe

Stubborn Denial
Vampiric Tutor

Arguel's Bloodfast
Snapcaster Mage
Grim Flayer

Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
Grisly Salvage

Liliana of the Veil
Liliana, the Last Hope
Tasigur, the Golden FangDismember

Street Wraith

Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Hooting Mandrills
Become Immense

14 Lands

3 Sac
3 Shock
3 Dual
City of Brass
Mana Confluence
Underground River

Tarnished CitadelFirst up the mana base - the thing I got most wrong. With a curve basically lower than my most aggressive red decks (assuming the delve cards cost one a piece which isn't too far off reasonable) and a swathe of cheap and free cantrip cards you want fewer lands than most cube decks. It is somewhere between the 13 and 14 count for a 40 card deck and was a significant part of me playing 41 in this list. You need two basic lands for the Traverse however you need to minimize your lands that don't produce black mana. I think two non-black sources is the max and I had three in this list. One of the Island, the Tropical or the Breeding Pool has to go. If it is the Island then you need a second swamp. If it is one of the duals then a simple Llanowar Wastes or potentially Blooming Marsh is the change. The deck was unique in that it was the first time I thought I wanted lands in the sideboard to enable rejigging the mana base for different matchups. Against the aggressive decks the painless lands are preferable but against everything else you want the option on hurting yourself. I would prefer the Breeding Pool to the Tropical in the majority of matchups. I would even want a Tarnished Citadel in one of the slots if I knew I had no burn heavy red opponents. With fewer things like Street Wraith and Thoughtsieze main you have less ongoing ability to reduce your life total and so having lands that can hurt you when they tap is surprisingly handy. I did have to play Mana Confluence and City of Brass on turn one on several occasions and so I fear the Tarnished Citadel is a bit of a risky luxury. The Underground River in this list should probably also be a black green source. These might sounds like subtle changes but they were huge in the games. Mana bases make a big difference to any deck but 40 (and 41) card, many coloured decks with lots of fetches and self mill complete with a really low curve are the most punishing you can get for a mana base mishap.

Thought ScourMental Note and Thought Scour are pretty broken. I see the latter getting a modern ban at some point. The blue Dark Rituals are not an unreasonable way to consider them but it underplays the value of the cards. Dark Ritual is just mana ramp while these are so much more. Yes, they will ultimately knock three off the cost of a delve spell and that is great. That for a card neutral one mana card is already over powered. You have to work to make Manamorphose produce extra mana and that is plenty good enough to power out modern storm lists. What I had not considered about Scour and Note is that they would do is act like tutors or card quality. With my list having a decent amount of recursion putting something in the bin gave you access to it a lot of the time. As such they had a touch of the Ancestral Recall meets Serum Visions about them too. When you are throwing around comparisons like Dark Ritual, Recall, Serum Visions and Manamorphose in just a single one mana card you can be pretty sure it is an extreme card! I feel like a lot of the power of the deck ultimately stems from how much you get back from these two support cards.

Street WraithBy comparison the Street Wraith and Baubles felt decidedly fair. They were more for the delirium support than the delve support. Zero mana for a card in the bin and a replacement card in hand is good but it doesn't lead to the turn two fat delve dork plays without the help of the Notes and Scours. The advantage of the "free" cyclers was the more proactive way they let you play. Many of my historical delirium decks and even the delve ones play a slower more midrange value kind of game. You might make a turn two Grim Flayer but then you would need to spend the next turn using a Vessel of Nasceny or something so as to be able to attack with it as a 4/4. In this list you can far more legitimately spend all your mana on relevant tempo and interaction effects rather than setup spells and still have the ability to swing in all powered up. This list felt sufficiently tight and refined that tinkering with the ratios and cutting the support cards would just lead to disaster.

The combo aspect of the deck is the Berserk, Vampiric Tutor and Become Immense package. Vamp was great in its own right being kind of like another Traverse increasing your consistency and options. The Berserk was also incredibly good giving you the ability to push through damage or win from seemingly nowhere. They could be on 20 and you could have a relatively small Shadow in play and you can still threaten lethal. I forced a block with 3 tokens and a Young Pyromancer while my opponent was at 19 because if I had the Berserk at the time I just won. I did indeed have it but due to the block I didn't need to use it. My opponents play was great but I still was able to win further down the line with my unconsumed resources and the value I was getting from what I could represent. When the mere threat of a card is enough to kill some tokens and a Pyromancer for near free it is a big win.

Become ImmenseThe Become Immense is the most cuttable of the trio. This would be nice because it would allow for another delve card to join the ranks, be that a Gurmag Angler or a Treasure Cruise or even something exotic like a Tombstalker! The Become Immense allows for almost every dork in the list to offer a fatal swing when you have it in combination with the Berserk. It is also pretty good on its own with the trample creatures you have in the deck. Mutagenic Growth had a lot of appeal for the deck with it being a free spell and a way to pay life. While I like it a lot in principle I think in practice it might not offer enough to merit inclusion. It isn't really a combo with Berserk and being a situational card greatly reduces the value of it being free in this list. A simple Predator's Strike or Sylvan Might could be the way to go over the Become Immense, the ability to give Shadow or Goyf trample is huge for this deck. Larger than Life even has some appeal although taking away the instant speed greatly reduces the utility. Much as I liked having access to the combo element I think the deck can do just fine without it.

UlcerateThe removal package was something I was rather light on. Dismember is great. Ulcerate rather less so! Even when the life cost is a perk not a problem Fatal Push still feels better. Two bits of removal seems like the bare minimum and low cost is of great importance. Both Snuff Out and Vendetta have some appeal in the theme of cheap removal with reasonable scaling and the ability to spend life. On the flip side I also really wanted an Abrupt Decay or Maelstrom Pulse so as to have so more rounded harder removal but simply couldn't find the space for these clunkier cards with less in the way of synergy to offer. Generally I would feel happiest with three removal spells main with at least one that hits more than just dorks but you have plenty of options and freedom to tune this area of the deck as seems best for the build and meta you have and face respectively.

After having done some testing with the deck and finding it has the capacity to stay in a game right up until the end and play the role of control I found myself wanting access to some mass removal. You could potentially lose a creature kill spell and pack a Toxic Deluge instead. It would hugely improve your game against weenie aggressive decks and token decks, offer you some life payment synergy and not really get too much in the way of your own threats. You don't have that many of them and most of them survive your typical Deluge. Going really control you could also pack a Pernicious Deed. It is even better at preserving your own threats with so many being planeswalkers or high CMC delve dorks. Deed is also a nice enchantment which is your least supported (non-tribal) card type. I think if I were to go down this route I would probably look to swap the Become Immense for a threat with delve.

Stubborn DenialStubborn Denial was another nuts card. The few occasions it was not a one mana Negate it was still able to counter the things as a Force Spike as the game was early or at least very tight. It rather epitomizes the archetype being a very cheap iteration of an effect. On the face of it a slightly cheaper conditional Negate doesn't seem like such a huge deal but in practice it felt totally unfair. You can just do so much so quickly You can win on turn three with counter backup! You wouldn't bother running Negate in this list but at a discount it is one of your bombs. Playing Stubborn Denial is enough for me to not want to run Shardless Agent due to their weak interactions but that is totally fine. Although Agent has nice delirium support for this deck and is a fantastic stand alone card of very high power level it turns out that this deck isn't about playing generically high powered cards. It is all about the right cards, the on theme cards and a three mana 2/2 is not what this deck wants at all. It gets its value and tempo in other better ways and should focus on those. There is a massive wealth of super high powered cards in this deck that I would normally consider auto includes like Baleful Strix and Deathrite Shaman. The latter probably is too good not to include but the Strix is just not quick or punchy enough for this list. It is just so hard finding the space and keeping the balance right in this deck that much is left on the sidelines but at least none of it felt like it was missed. You know a deck is good when you don't miss a Deathrite in it in any way at all!

Hooting MandrillsTasigur was also nuts as were the Hooting Mandrills, I was glad of having the apes over the zombie fish main. Not only was it easier to make a turn two Mandrills than an Angler but the trample is also far more relevant in cube with loads of tokens floating about. Getting a turn two delve dork is lovely and very easy off the back of Scour or Note, you only need two of any sac land, zero mana cantrip or a one mana action card like Inquisition (you only have mana to play one such action spell for this opener). Tasigur was a big help for going long as well. With everything being so cheap in your deck by the time you run out of gas you can be activating Tasigur and usually using what you get back right away. Being able to reuse instants and sorceries without exiling them is useful, being able to refill the bin after having delved for five cards is also lovely. You even have pretty good control over what you will get back with Tasigur due to the other delve cards in your list.

Thoughtsieze is obviously one of the best cards in the deck being very on theme while also being one of the best cards in all of Magic. Inquisition was fine, some nice redundancy for the hand disruption. You could run OK without it but you would lack enough of the right kinds of interaction and would likely need to run more countermagic. Collective Brutality would be a fine card for this deck too, as it is in any deck with black it seems! The condensed nature of the card helps with the tightness on space and the discard options can help to secure early delve and delirium plays. Discard is generally preferable to counter magic in this deck as it is more proactive. That being said cost (for the effect) is overall the most relevant thing and so with very limited options on good cheap discard I can see these decks winding up with perhaps more countermagic than would be optimal.

Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Snapcaster were both nuts. They outperformed expectation massively due to me undervaluing the combination of them with cards like Thought Scour. They were the reason that Scour so often felt like it was a Serum Visions. Jace is a touch slower but helps fill up the bin early on and lets you go far longer which is of more value in cube than for the modern iteration of the deck. It was including these two cards that made the unusual Unearth choice so strong. This list only has 5 targets for Unearth which would normally be on the light side. The self mill and high value of those 5 targets however makes Unearth a joke good in this deck. A one mana Snapcaster lets you do a hell of a lot in a turn! One mana 6/7s and 8/8s are nice too! I wanted creature recursion cards because I was scared I had over invested in supporting Death's Shadow with only the one copy of it and no other cards benefiting from low life totals. Second Chance probably not worth it even in a deck like this! While it was certainly nice to be able to get some of the threats back it was the blue dorks that really broke the Unearth. I would only play it if I had at least 5 relevant targets, without the blue two drops in this list the Unearth is probably not exciting enough.

Goyf and Flayer were both good, both were typically four power and toughness or there abouts in the case of Goyf on turn two which is nice and most certainly that way or better for their first attack. Gofy is just at his best in this deck, he is the second best Berserk target and immensely on theme. Flayer is more a support card threat hybrid. The four power things tend to control the board and put your opponent under pressure but they rarely won the games. If Flayer won the game it was the graveyard setup and card quality rather than the Mandrills body. Still well worth the inclusion but somehow still one of the least good dorks in the deck!

Death's Shadow is the namesake of the deck and the only reason to inflict so much self harm. While it isn't worth supporting a card like this just for the sake of it in this list it felt absolutely worth it. One of my opponents described the deck as like an infect deck which felt pretty reasonable. He was referring to the awkward situation of feeling in a good position but having to treat certain attacks as lethal. I have always banged on about how a big over statted dork isn't all that in cube, usually in some attempt to knock Goyf off his pedestal. Gofy has typically under performed in cube relative to other formats. The reason Goyf and Death's Shadow are so strong and worthwhile in this deck is because this deck is themed on having big cheap dorks. A random fatty isn't that helpful to a lot of game plans but when you have good redundancy and make cheap fatties as you please then they shoot up in value in cube. Death's Shadow is particularly irksome to play against with so many cards giving you the ability to change its size at instant speed. When it isn't threatening to kill you outright it is still being tedious to block in any way other than a chump and at growing out of burn range with things on the stack. You have to play a sufficient number of life cost cards to be able to run the Shadow but you would happily run them as they are and by running them with Shadow you greatly offset the life cost elements. Shadow lets you play more cards from a group of very powerful cards than you normally would want to and so the "support" cards for Shadow are actually empowering the deck rather than reducing the power level. They are all typically strong stand alone cards too so you are not even becoming narrower to support the Shadow. With so much in the way of tutoring, self mill, cantrips and recursions the single copy of the Shadow felt like I had the full suite of four as per a sixty card deck.

Grisly SalvageGrisly Salvage is a fairly underrated card. If we are getting hot for what Mental Note does for a delve deck then the Salvage really pushes the boat out. It is 5 delve mana for 2 rather than 3 for 1 and it also comes with something resembling an Impulse. Being an instant with such huge graveyard filling potential is lovely too as it lets you do some nasty things in combat. Despite the many merits of this card you may well be better off with the safer Grapple with the Past or Strategic Planning. Those only add three things to the bin and are rather worse tempo plays but they are easier to cast and somewhat safer. Grapple scales up very nicely and Planning can take any card type which might be the most relevant. The interaction and combo elements of the deck are not things you can fetch with Grapple or Salvage and so Planning has that going for it. While I am yet to miss with a Salvage I have had a couple of piles with a single option from the five which is a little scary. Although still good at that you really want the selection as well as the mill to justify the cost. I feel like you really need more delve support in these cube lists than just the cards that the modern lists can and would run and Salvage is a nice space efficient way to up the delve support being impressively high on the mill per card and mill per mana ratios.

Arguel's Blood FastPerhaps the most controversial card in the list is the Arguel's Blood Fast. It is the polar opposite of tempo and aggression yet it worked wonders in the list. I nearly didn't play it but would be reluctant to forgo it in future having seen it in action. A big part of the draw of the card is that it is an enchantment, without it you cannot get your Goyf bigger than a 6/7 on your own. There were a lot of good options on the enchantment front. Something cheap and discrete like Oath of Nissa or Unbridled Growth crossed my mind first but with this list being so cheap and cost driven such cards felt more harmful than usual. I am not playing EtB tapped lands in this list for a good reason! In the slower and more midrange lists such cards have a negligible cost but I felt I needed to be doing a bit more than those kinds of cards to merit the mana cost and card slot.

In the line of interesting enchantments Bitterblossom had a lot of appeal being a double delirium hit, offering an alternate win condition and a source of life loss. Sounds great but on closer inspection it doesn't actually feel like it fits in with the theme of the deck. It is very slow to act as a threat and requires a life buffer to fuel it. If you spend a whole load of life on things, ie using the other spells in your deck, then you are not going to have enough life to use the card as a win condition. It is off theme and the life cost is exactly the sort you don't want. Low and slow life loss over time with no option to not lose life. You want to pay life early to get ahead and then not pay more when you get low. This is part of what makes Blood Fast so strong but only part!

Temple of AclazotzSearch for Azcanta was another consideration for an enchantment and while the better card than Blood Fast it is not such a great fit in this list. The mill is nice but very slow as mill goes and the flipped land doesn't really do anything extra you need. It is not like a control deck which can just milk it for value and find all the things it needs to win. A bit of value is nice but that is the ultimate form of this card and that doesn't make it useful enough when other cards provide all that and more. Sylvan Library is probably the best alternative to Blood Fast. It lets you pay life very effectively and gives a massive amount of ongoing card selection in this list. Library does rather more in the early game but it doesn't offer the unique late game delights of the Blood Fast. It solves the problem I outlined for why Bitterblossom is weak. You want to pay lots of life early and then sit pretty on a low life total. Blood Fast lets you pay life at any time and as much as you need to and once at low life it then turns into a lovely safety net. Without access to life gain you stop being able to play a number of cards in your deck as the game goes on. You are also pretty cold to any aggressive red deck. This list is so good at hurting itself that you can just have the Blood Fast flip quickly without activating it to draw at all which makes it better in the games where it is all about tempo and not about value. While Blood Fast is absolutely at its best in the bin when you are going pure tempo for the win it single handedly gives you as much late game as you need when that isn't the plan which is more often than not in cube. It is just so effective all round at giving you all the tools you need to win a longer game I am more than happy running the somewhat sideboard looking card main. Blood Fast provides control over the flow of the game, it provides a wealth of options and has a bunch of utility. While it isn't the sort of thing you want in modern it very much is a thing you are into for cube a little like why mini Jaec is also so good in this build yet not a thing in the modern iterations. Another massive thing that the land does for you is protect against exile effects. With so few threats and a heavy crutch provided by recursion the ability to sac off something in response to a Path or Plow is not to be sniffed at. In cube it is often forgotten about the effects of being in certain colours on the meta you will face. If you are Sultai then you will face a meta with more red and white cards in them. Red means burn and white means exile removal. Guess what counters both of those things (and has been discussed at great length in the last couple of paragraphs)?

Liliana, the Last HopeLastly on the main deck cards we have the pair of Lilianas. I didn't find either nuts but I wouldn't look to cut either. They tie the deck together at the top end in the way the Wraiths and Baubles do so as cheap support cards. Both the Lilianas support the deck in almost every way. Both fill up the yard and both offer extra, and ongoing, removal. Veil is extra hand disruption and Last Hope is another recursion tool. Both work very well with the cheap proactive nature of the deck. When you can get ahead with a planeswalker that is a very winning position! Last Hope is probably your second best route to victory with her ultimate should you exile your Berserk. It can be very hard to push through in cube with this deck. Beyond these two 3 mana Lilianas no other planeswalkers really appeal. Ashiok is very powerful but it has zero synergy beyond helping you have delirium when in the bin and all planeswalkers do that! There are a bunch of good four or more mana walkers that would be good in the deck but I don't want to stretch the mana that far. I think I would probably just not play alternate planeswalkers if I didn't get either or both of these two Lilianas. There are just no other suitably on theme ones at three in these colours. You can bolster the enchantment or even artifact count if you want to preserve your delirium abilities if you are light on the planeswalker count.

Toxic DelugeBoth walkers are a big part of why the deck can play control. When you get ahead with a walker you can leverage your cards to wildly trade up. Cryptic Commands will be used in desperation just to lower the loyalty on a walker rather than being used to beat you. Creatures will be running in chump attacks to do the same. Perhaps high value cards are thrown under the bus to bait out specific modes on  walker etc etc. Having these walkers makes mass removal like Toxic Deluge and Pernicious Deed more appealing, not having them makes the combo kill with pump and Berserk something I would lean on a little more.

I was planning on running Dark Confidant but ended up not doing so. It would have led down a rabbit hole of wanting library manipulation due to the huge variance the many alternate costing spells ensure. Taking a surprise six life hit and broadcasting your Become Immense isn't very clever. You want to pay life but you want to have control over it and Confidant is exactly that. I suspect a list using Confidant would wind up with a couple more things like Brainstorm and Serum Visions and things like Blood Fast becoming Sylvan Library. You might even wind up with a sufficient mass of little critters that cards like Smuggler'c Copter become appealing. Say, Deathrite Shaman, Confidant, Baleful Strix and Satyr Wayfinder. Such a deck would be a more midrange version of this style of deck and would probably want neither the mass removal options or the combo kill options. This is another aspect of this deck I find very appealing. You can seemingly keep a large constant core of cards and tweak a few of the optional things and wind up with aggro, combo, midrange and control versions of the deck. A number of other archtypes can undergo these transformations but they cannot do so in any where near as few card changes as this list seems to be able to.

Deathrite ShamanI looked at a few other options that felt like they were on theme, sufficiently powerful, or that just found themselves in peoples lists for PT RIX. Hostage Taker, Sidisi and Phyrexian Metalmorph all fell into one or more of these groups but all ended up just feeling clunky. Unless it felt better than a Liliana three drop I am not into things that cost more than two for this archetype. Maelstrom Pulse, Deluge and Deed are the only 3 or more mana (non-delve) cards I have any real interest for in the list.

I also considered mana dorks like Birds of Paradise and the cute rare upside Elves of Deep Shadow. While these are fine turn one plays they are pretty worthless later on in the game and to a much greater degree than other lists. You can only ramp into two cards in the whole list! Yes, you still get tempo with the ramp but less than you do with the Note and Scour and at more cost. You don't have loads of ways to put dead cards in hand to use in the deck either. Mana dorks wouldn't be terrible in the deck but they would be lower value and higher risk than usual. I would much rather play things like Night's Whisper, Ponder and other more aimless or lightly synergic filler cards. The same applies to the seemingly on theme and powerful expensive cards. I think I have covered basically all the cards I would want main and short of having those I would strongly fall on the side of filler cards than going off piste.

As you can probably tell by the amount I have gone on about this deck I really really liked it! It made for outstanding magic. The deck was super hard and as such a very satisfying challenge to take on. It was very interactive and involved with the opponents game and seemed to give great games regardless of the matchup. The games were varied too with long grindy ones and precision perfect explosive quick games. I cannot recommend having a go with something like this yourself enough!

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