July 5, 2016
Eternal Command: It’s Time for Savage Knuckleblade in Modern!
As the dust finally settles on the Splinter Twin ban, Eldrazi Winter, and the unbanning of Sword of the Meek and Ancestral Vision, we are at last getting a good look at a new, stable Modern format. From what I have seen, this new Modern is less punishing in the first three turns of the game, and thus more open to a wider spread of decks and cards. Things that were previously just a shade too cute or too risky may now find themselves inside the “Modern playable” line - including cards like this:
Savage Knuckleblade comes from the same Khans of Tarkir cohort as Siege Rhino, Butcher of the Horde and Mantis Rider (sorry Sultai - none of your creatures were even close). Of these powerful looking wedge creatures, only Siege Rhino has carved out its place in Modern, while the others can be found in the bulk rare bin. But times change and formats shift, and I believe that with the slightly slower Modern we see today there’s room for the beefy three mana Ogre to see more play.
Is Savage Knuckleblade Modern playable? Modern creatures generally need to be cheap, dodge commonly played removal, provide some kind of value even if killed immediately, and/or take over a game if left unchecked. How does Knuckleblade stack up?
Cheap? Three mana is on the upper edge of what’s acceptable for a general beatstick. But if we’re not surprised to see Knight of the Reliquary or Geist of Saint Traft in a game of Modern it means three mana is acceptable if the card is good enough.
Dodges removal? Knuckleblade passes the bolt test with its four toughness, but also has the ability to dodge any sort of removal with its blue activated ability - it’s costly, but it’s there.
Provides immediate value? Not exactly. Knuckleblade does not have an ETB or Dies trigger but it does have the ability to gain haste for a single red mana. Against a tapped out opponent that means you may be able to charge down a planeswalker like Liliana of the Veil or just hit them for four damage before the Doom Blade falls.
Takes over a game if left unchecked? Kind of. While it’s not as busted as untapping with a Dark Confidant or Steel Overseer in play, the threat of Knuckleblade being a 6/6 often means it will connect for damage as very few cards can block it profitably. In a late game where you’ve hit your sixth or seventh land drop, Knuckleblade also provides a very strong dose of inevitability since it can dodge removal and come back with haste as well.
Sounds like a passing grade, but if the card is so good why doesn’t it see play? I’d chock this up mostly to the colour requirements and more generally the “Simic Problem”. There’s just generally a lack of strong blue/green cards to make a midrange or control deck around those colours better than the alternatives. While Knuckleblade might be part of that equation, there’s actually an important blue-green midrange/control synergy that I overlooked in my previous article on Simic:
Apparently both “Eternal Command” and “Eternal Ruse” were well known decks from the days of Extended. Having never played that format, and not having seen the combo in any of the many Modern games I’ve played I unfortunately overlooked it until very recently. The combo sees the bounce effect of Cryptic Command or the additional cost of Familiar’s Ruse used to return the Witness to hand from play - which can then be replayed to return the blue spell back to hand from the graveyard- effectively a loop that allows you to counter a spell every turn. At seven and five mana respectively, that isn’t necessarily that oppressive, but there’s a third piece of the combo that greatly reduces the cost:
An Aether Vial with three counters means you no longer have to pay the mana to replay the Witness each turn, making the loop cost just two or four mana which is a lot faster and more efficient. It also lets you play your Witness like a zero mana Snapcaster Mage if you wish to (flashing it in to surprise the opponent with a counterspell or removal spell). If only there was some other Simic creature that could leverage an Aether Vial on three counters...
That’s right. As a blue/green midrange/control deck that has a burn backup plan, that also wants to get Aether Vial out with three counters, the match with Knuckleblade is incredible. Knuckleblade pairs up with Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze as the beatdown win condition, and Knuckleblade in particular provides inevitability in a game that goes long and sees you hit your sixth and seventh land drops. With a Vial on three, you can play a Knuckleblade and give it haste for one mana - leaving plenty more available to protect it, and if you have to bounce it to avoid removal, the Vial will let you put it right back into play for free.
Surprisingly, it's more common to see Huntmaster of the Fells in this slot. While Vialing in a Huntmaster at end of turn can feel pretty strong, it provides opponent’s with a valid Lightning Bolt target where otherwise the deck has none. It also means that if you then draw a Witness, you've ticked your vial up and prevented yourself from establishing a Ruse or Command lock. Knuckleblade removes all of the awkwardness of ticking up the vial, survives Bolt, and provides inevitability just like a Huntmaster. While it does not give you the extra body or life, coming down a turn sooner is often just as relevant against fast aggro decks.
So what does an Eternal Command deck look like with Savage Knuckleblade? My current list is as follows:
The deck has a lot of game because it plays a lot of top tier Modern cards: Snapcaster, Goyf, Bolt, Remand, Cryptic. What turns it from a "bad Jund" pile of low synergy goodstuff is the addition of Knuckleblade, Eternal Witness and Aether Vial. These cards let you do more oppressive things - from just having a more explosive start with a turn 1 vial, to chaining the same Bolt with a Witness and a Snapcaster, to establishing the soft lock or protecting a Knuckleblade. I would generally scoff at the idea of a 16 creature deck running a playset of Vials, but the ability to re-use the vial on the Witness and Knuckleblade makes up for the overall lack of creatures to Vial into play.
The biggest weakness of the deck is obviously graveyard hate, as it shuts down Witness, Snapcaster, Ooze, and Tarmogoyf. Eternal Command also struggles with big creatures that come down early like Wurmcoil Engine out of Tron or Tasigur, the Golden Fang. This is more or less the known weakness of Temur - you do not have Path to Exile or Terminate to clean up resolved threats - you're down to Roast and chaining Lightning Bolts, or possibly bouncing or tapping with Cryptic Command. Having bigger creatures sometimes gets the job done too, and 4/5 goyfs and 6/6 knuckleblades are big enough for most threats in the format when push comes to shove.
Since the days of Temur Twin Modern players have known that putting Tarmogoyf with Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolt was good, the problem has been finding other reasons to put those colours together - and specifically a reason to play Green over White or Black. The combination of Eternal Witness, Savage Knuckleblade, and Aether Vial provides a legitimate reason to go down the path of Temur.
Until next time, good luck finding homes for other fringe Modern cards in this new, friendlier Modern!