Greetings! I'm stainerson on MTGO, a member of Team Massdrop East, and I try to be a creative deckbuilder. Well, a divergent/novel deckbuilder at least; “creative” implies originality, and a big part of the process is often borrowing, cribbing, and other benevolent synonyms for theft. For some examples of “novelty,” see the following nonsense decks with which I managed to win PTQs:
I'm not crying tears over Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan being Modern and not post-ban new-set Standard, because it's an appreciated change of pace for me, but there's no arguing that Standard is the best venue right now for deckbuilding freedom. Although I've been spending much more time trying to hone in Modern tournament results, there's definitely been a little itch/fairy/voice in my head saying "what about this? What about THIS?" on loop with regards to Standard, and I'm writing this to deliver myself some catharsis on that front and indulge myself the thought exercise of what I'd have been doing - which ideas I'd be spamming out upon my teammates to refine - if I had been facing a traditional Standard PT.
First, let's look into how I usually kick off my thought processes. I've never been innately drawn to "good card piles" - I've buckled down and played them plenty, and to success, but I'm never jumping for joy when a new set introduces Abrade or Pithing Needle or Rune Snag. Those cards don't excite me (and in fact they'll often end up vexing me as I sort through what I REALLY want to be doing).
Instead, I glom onto things that are continuous or repeatable or otherwise amplifiable beyond what's written on the card. You know what you're getting with Lightning Bolt - three, and only three, damage - but Bad Moon? That could add three damage too, but it could add four, or nine instead. You get to go outside the four corners of the card to determine how good it's going to be, so the ceiling is way way higher.
Bad Moon effects and the like aren't often knocking formats on its head (unless we're looking at the Pro Tour Amsterdam finals: https://magic.wizards.com/en/events/coverage/ptqams10 for reference) but there's another grouping of card that is - "whenever" cards. The seemingly innocuous word "when" and "whenever" have been the power standing behind Thopter-Sword, Valakut, Amulet of Vigor, Glimpse of Nature (and Nettle Sentinel!), Disciple of the Vault, Punishing Fire, Bridge from Below, and the Twin-Exarch and Felidar Guardian-Saheeli combos. Even when it isn't generating bannings, it's still propelling Puresteel Paladin/Sram combos, Melira/Vizier of Remedies/Anafenza combos, Lightning Rift, Monastery Mentor, Pyromancer Ascension, Young Pyromancer, Retreat to Coralhelm, and making its mark in Standard with Jeskai Ascendancy, Diregraf Colossus, Hardened Scales and Managorger Hydra... Go back far enough and you can find it doing the work behind enchantress decks, or Daru Spiritualist/Angelic Protector infinite life combos, or even just Quirion Dryad shenanigans.
"Whenever" is powerful in the same way as Bad Moon - Puresteel Paladin is nice if it draws two cards, but it's GREAT when it draws 40, and the only thing separating those two outcomes is your ambition. Nobody plays Glimpse of Nature or Argothian Enchantress to draw two cards, and Valakut doesn't see play as Ramunap Ruins-type protection from drawing too many lands in red decks. I gravitate towards "whenever" cards because under the right conditions, they can end up being things that would never have seen print: we accept three damage for R as great, but what about nine damage for 1B? Or 18 damage for 2GG? Or an unbounded amount of damage in two payments of 2U and 2RR?
A RECENT HISTORY LESSON
I've also got an example of when this philosophy dovetailed very nicely (almost, but not quite, perfectly!) with preparation for a Standard Pro Tour. Shadows over Innistrad was the newest set, and while it brought individually powerful cards like Avacyn and Declaration in Stone, my attention was much more drawn to this idea that had been launched out into the ether:
“The Aristocrats of Westvale Abbey”: https://www.reddit.com/r/spikes/comments/4cd5cs/standard_the_aristocrats_of_westvale_abbey/
Note: sometimes the cards you should be targeting can be deceptive. I had not considered Cryptolith Rite a playable card, and I'm sure my spike instincts skipped over it when reading the spoiler because it fell into a category of "weird green junk rare granting abilities to creatures." I *know* I skipped over Loam Dryad on the spoiler as a "bad card they love to push on us to remind us to stop asking for Llanowar Elves, it's gone forever." But I quickly noted how Loam Dryad worked with Elvish Visionary, how Rite lined up with Visionary and Sifter, and how all of them fed Abbey. I was definitely intrigued.
In fact, I was exactly intrigued enough by this Reddit post to lean on the other "packages" legal at the time and think of how I could replace things like 7-mana enchantments and Ulvenwald Hydra. Cryptolith Rite pointed me towards expensive payoffs, but constructed Magic regularly punishes those who play permanents that don't provide immediate impact. I immediately thought of mana sinks for the Rite - Duskwatch Recruiter and Eldrazi Displacer - and then a big payoff, the Brood Monitor + Eldrazi Displacer "infinite" combo (that would do something only with a Sifter or a Zulaport Cutthroat in play, but conveniently Sifter was already in the deck and Cutthroat aligned with Westvale Abbey). I felt that adding a color and a half for Displacer wouldn't be too bad because Caves of Koilos helped as support and both Rite and Dryad could help cast the Displacer.
Reflector Mage was the final piece that gave the maindeck legs - and even that isn't so much an example of "put the most powerful card in" (at the time it didn't carry a reputation as a banned card that's good enough for Modern), but a card that had similar little pathways to the other cards in the deck. Loam Dryad and Rite help with the extra color. Company doesn't care that you don't have the right lands to cast it. Displacer is busted alongside it, and wouldn't mind an extra set of painlands for their colorless mana.
[I can't speak for people I didn't work with for that event, but note that there was another angle to Cryptolith Rite - the straight GB sacrifice deck that many people did well with in the tournament. Those players honed in on Rite and Abbey, but where I had focused on Rite, leading me to mana sinks that led me to Displacer that led me to the combo and Reflector Mage, they focused on Abbey, which led them to Cutthroat, Blisterpod, and Nantuko Husk. Both decks were greased by Recruiter and Company, two standout cards on power level.]
Unfortunately a lot of this came late in the process of preparing for that Pro Tour, so we as a group lacked any confidence whatsoever in the sideboard. The deck ended up only being "ready" when a teammate (I forget who! Sorry teammates!) came up with Reality Smasher as a sideboard card - a fantastic way to pressure Languish-based control decks. The deck premiered a week after the PT, hitting 11th, 20th, and 21st place at Grand Prix Toronto (https://magic.wizards.com/en/events/coverage/gptor16/9-32-decklists-2016-05-01 for reference/for me to pump up my teammates), and then busted out a week later with multiple top 8 appearances in New York (please confirm my self-aggrandizing at https://magic.wizards.com/en/events/coverage/gpny16/top-decklists-2016-05-08).
Obviously not every deck takes form this way - I doubt anyone sat and "Beautiful Mind"-ed (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0268978/ - seriously, I’m trying to be good about my citations) their way into building red aggro ("Hazoret leads to Shock! Bomat Courier leads to Earthshaker Kenra! The pieces! They're all here!"). But it is one of the ways to divert yourself from the path of "these are the good cards in the format, let's jam em together" to "let's find something that maybe nobody else has found." I doubt that the future future league (RIP; long live Play Design) spent much time in that Standard playing decks with 12 enemy painlands or BG, UW, and "diamond" (did we ever agree what to call this? I'm not saying "colorless color requirements") color requirements. And again, part of what made Splinter Twin and Saheeli combo decks so powerful was that they existed in environments that weren't adequately prepared for them, because they weren't interactions that were intended to exist.
MY CURRENT OBSESSIONS
Two repeatable interactions I've had on my mind for a bit now are Oketra's Monument with Aviary Mechanic and Rhonas's Monument with Greenbelt Rampager. They aren't unbounded, but they both provide (with proper support) a Thopter-Sword type interaction for a very relevant benefit. (Note that I know that the Monuments trigger off any creature, not just ones of their associated god's color, but obviously there's a natural draw to getting more use out of the cost reduction aspect if possible.)
My thought process from the Oketra's Monument - Mechanic interaction goes as follows:-Oketra's Monument leading me to Aviary Mechanic then leads me to Legion's Landing, as well as potentially resetting Aether Hub, which might let us get crazier with mana (always a plus). -Growing Rites of Itlimoc works with Mechanic and tokens, Servo Exhibition links Growing Rites and Legion's Landing.-Walking Ballista, Rhonas the Indomitable, and Oketra the True are payoffs for the mana from a flipped Growing Rites.-Mechanic also points to Cartouche of Solidarity, which links to Trial of Solidarity (pretty low hanging fruit to see that connection, but Mechanic bounces Trial too!)-Cartouche also links to Legion's Landing in that the added one-drop creatures make it easier to have a turn three flip-Other one-drops to turboflip landing: Toolcraft Exemplar, Duskborne Skymarcher, Skymarcher Aspirant, Hope of Ghirapur, Sacred Cat, Bomat Courier (which links to Spire), Snubhorn Sentry (how much can we push Ascend?)-Other payoffs for having a ton of early creatures: Driven/Despair, Appeal/Authority, Shefet Dunes (on color!), Pride of Conquerors-Both split card payoffs I just listed work with Adorned Pouncer nicely (or Imperial Lancer if there are relevant cheap dinosaurs... but there don't really appear to be?)
At this point I'd pause the ride and get off for a moment to take a look at where I am now. It looks like I'm no longer strongly following Oketra's Monument as a guiding force for the deck, but looking into these token/very low to the ground aggressive strategies instead. This isn't a bad thing, because I can always go back to working on Monument, but have found something I otherwise wouldn't have gone to through a card that works with it. It doesn't hurt that the other options I'm looking at are less vulnerable to Abrade, which was in six of the top 8 decks of the January 20 online PTQ and six in the top 10 finishers (6-2 or better) in the January 27 Standard Magic Online Championship Series monthly event.
I am somewhat pondering a Growing Rites deck with the following:
I do have some reservations though. First, I worry that there's not enough support to make Growing Rites active quickly. I can't use it the turn I play it, so it suffers from that one-turn delay that hurts most engine cards in constructed (and there isn't a great way to overcome this because there aren't great options for creatures with flash or expensive green instant-speed effects other than Oviya Pashiri, Sage Lifecrafter, which I guess intrigues me?). I'm also not sure it's sufficiently explosive - is a flipped Growing Rites always going to do something, and is whatever it's doing going to be better than what my opponent is doing, and are these other cards going to do something if I don't draw my signature card? The way it looks, I want to draw one of each card I've listed and no more, which makes me concerned about the deck's chances in "fail rate" games where it draws a bit more strangely and isn't smoothly doing its thing.
What I am more enthusiastically considering, though, is a token/rush deck with the following:
This looks like the start of something that could really run people over. Cheap sweepers could potentially be an issue (though the most recent Standard MTGO PTQ and MOCS monthly show very few people packing 3+ Sweltering Suns, and even fewer Settle the Wreckage, which is a nice start), so I'd want to sideboard things that let me stop them or rebuild - Saving Grace or Consulate Surveillance are too narrow or hard to time effectively; Gideon's Intervention might be okay against white sweepers, but it's hard to stick prior to Sweltering Sun. Adanto Vanguard and Yahenni both dodge Sun, and are vampires (linking to Legion's Landing and Aspirant and potentially Radiant Destiny which is nice with Landing), and Hazoret might be an ace to have against the types of decks that would play Sun... Settle is a harder problem, but if all else fails, we have Duress.
A side note: as you might see, some of the engine-building that I do breaks down a bit when it comes to figuring out sideboards. It's for the same reason that very few of the decks that I would be brainstorming up right now would start with Abrade or Fatal Push (or in past eras, Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt). As I mentioned, my sideboarding gap held the 4.5 Rites deck back from being played in at the Pro Tour. It's an ancillary reason for why this approach can have issues in formats like Modern - those generically powerful removal spells are often necessities, and I don't always leave room for them. In Modern I love dreaming of using Oketra's Monument and Kor Skyfisher to imitate Thopter-Sword while being far more useful individually, seeing as Skyfisher also works with Legion's Landing (or Oath of Nissa!), Squadron Hawk with Monument is basically two flashed back Lingering Souls, Honor of the Pure pumps these cards, Monument gets extra triggers off of Soul Wardens/Attendants, Honor of the Pure pumps all of this and makes flipped Landing more intimidating... but after all those neat interactions where's the room for Path to Exile? Or for some kind of disruption? What part of my deck does my Storm opponent care about? In high powered formats there's a lot of ways to skip over gaining value through synergy on the way to winning, and there's an irrefutable impetus to be able to stop someone on that path as well.
Anyways, I'd probably be satisfied enough with the aggressive white/X deck to put it forward to teammates as something to put through the paces with established decks, and I'd solicit more ideas on the Growing Rites front to see if maybe there was some piece or angle I was missing. You know, if you choose Growing Rites, turn to page 23; if you choose Toolcraft Exemplar go to page 189.
Column A.Column B.
With Rhonas's Monument, I wouldn't expect to drift nearly as far away - particularly because I've got an unbounded combo in mind. Monument and Rampager can first lead me in a conventional direction - towards Longtusk Cub, which is great with trample and great with keeping Rampager from getting stuck in play - but it can also bring me to Servant of the Conduit and Paradox Engine, which let me reach a scenario where I can play Rampager with a green mana from my Servant, untap the Servant via the Engine trigger, get an energy from the Rampager and return it, and repeat the process an unlimited number of times, giving the Servant an unfathomable power and toughness and trample to get through and murk my opponent. Servant, Rampager, and Cub point me to Winding Constrictor, because Constrictor, Cub, and Rampager let me repeatedly pay a green mana for a permanent +2/+2 on the Cub; Constrictor also points me to Rishkar, Peema Renegade, which is a nice direction to be in because a combination of Rishkar and Cub can fill in for the Servant in the Servant-Engine-Rampager combo (Rishkar untaps and generates the green mana necessary; Cub lets you keeping spending energy down to zero so Rampager never sticks in play). Constrictor also pairs well with Verdurous Gearhulk, which Rhonas's Monument helps accelerate to (though I'd prefer to have a deck with Monument play a bunch of 1G creatures than 3GG ones).
Further down this path, having a bunch of creatures and mana/cost reduction leads me to Vizier of the Menagerie. Vizier is somewhat nice with explore creatures like Merfolk Branchwalker and Jadelight Ranger if we want to go that direction, though we already have plenty of 2-drops. Rampager could be nice with Lifecrafter's Bestiary, but we'd want to reliably be able to spend our energy, and Cub is probably dying on sight if it's up to my opponents. Uncage the Menagerie searches for Rampager for three mana, or gets Winding Constrictor and Cub for four, so if we have time for playing sorceries that don't affect the board it's actually somewhat interesting - more a card against control than red. If we want more energy outlets, we could dip into other colors - I consider Aethergeode Miner a reasonable playable. I'm struggling to think of ways to use Paradox Engine best, other than Rishkar and Servant; other mana producers like Druid of the Cowl maybe? Quicksilver Spy, Quicksmith Rebel, and Minister of Inquiries are all cards that could fit in with Engine and Rampager, though they don't interact with Monument super well. It may just be that Rishkar is the best thing possible - Rishkar, Cub, Engine, and Rampager together allow for an unbounded amount of mana (tap Rishkar and Cub for GG, play Rampager for G and get an energy, spend your energy each time you reach two), and Walking Ballista is a great use for that mana that also happens to benefit from Constrictor.
Is this becoming too much of a Winding Constrictor deck? It's not clear, and it's possible that such a deck is what this ultimately turns into. Still, I'd offer that Monument and Rampager might add more than the industry standard Constrictor deck right now, and I'd definitely be putting it through its paces in PT preparation instead of setting it aside because something with many of the same cards already exists.
I don't get to submit these to the Massdrop East/West team forums due to circumstance, but I'd love to reenact it in more open forums (and maybe I can trick Ari Lax or Ben Weitz into giving me some input anyways). I'd be happy to see what other people can do with these skeletons - steal these ideas, please!
· Meet the Massdrop Teams: http://dro.ps/mtg-team-announce
· *2nd* at Pro Tour Ixalan: http://dro.ps/ixalan
· Unclaimed Creature Types: http://dro.ps/ari-creatures
· Why I Never Drop From Tournaments: http://dro.ps/eric-nevergiveup
· The Art of Sideboard Construction - Sultai Energy: http://dro.ps/jon-sideboard
· A Commoner's View on Pauper: http://dro.ps/mark-pauper
· Blue Moon Beach Control: http://dro.ps/scott-bluemoon
· Top 5 Modern Decks: http://dro.ps/pascal-modern
· Storm in Vintage Cube: http://dro.ps/ben-storm
· An Early Look at Rivals for Standard: http://dro.ps/shaun-rivals
· A Standard Approach to Evaiuating New Cards: http://dro.ps/rob-newcards
· Drafting Rivals of Ixalan: http://dro.ps/tim-ixalan
· Team-Sealed Secrets: http://dro.ps/eric-secrets