November 12, 2015

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Going Rogue: Knightfall Revisited

Hello and welcome back to another edition of Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal but it often happens anyway.

Actually, this week we're revisiting a deck I wrote about a few weeks back, and tuning it, so I guess winning is the goal this time. So sue me. (Don't worry, there is still some spicy tech to be found here regardless. Winning doesn't have to be boring.)

The deck I'm talking about is Reliquary Retreat. Last time we discussed the Knight of the Reliquary + Retreat to Coralhelm combo, we had it housed within the below Kiki-Chord shell:

While I'm no longer playing this version, it did have some game. It curves very smoothly - if it doesn't ramp to play a 3-drop on turn two, its 2-drops are perfectly serviceable. Its variety of creatures offer very diverse utility, and are easily accessible via Chord of Calling. Access to three separate combo kills is obviously very powerful. And if all else fails, it attacks wide very well and makes A+ use of Gavony Township.

But it has its problems. For one, two of the three combo conditions require Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, who is difficult to cast, even with a Chord, and is very easily removed. Secondly, you can try to apply pressure to bait out removal and leave the door open for the combo kill, but its beatdown game isn't that good - and heavy Exalted is awkward in a deck with 26 medium-sized non-evasive creatures. Third, as a creature-heavy deck with no card advantage, it is very vulnerable to sweepers, and due to its reliance on Convoke, Chord doesn't help. Fourth, Voice of Resurgence isn't very good at taxing removal, as the nature of our primary combo gives them a turn of their own in between step one and step two, and its a lousy beater on its own. And last, it turns out Retreat to Coralhelm isn't quite good enough on its own. It's far from a dead card, but it needs more synergies than just the combo in a format as competitive as Modern.

So in other words: Back to the drawing board.

Having gained a bit of experience with the deck, it's become clear that it wants to feature a powerful beatdown strategy. Like a Big Zoo deck, but with a little more finesse. The core of the deck provides that well, and I want to keep it intact:

There are a few key reasons I would not advise building the deck without this core:

  • Dork into Knight into Retreat for a turn three kill is too good to not attempt. This is one of our best ways to beat other fast decks.
  • Tarmogoyf is incredible dork insurance. Having your turn one Birds of Paradise fall victim to a Lightning Bolt is a heartbreaker, until you follow it up with a bolt-proof 3/4.
  • The only reasonable non-dork, non-burn, non-Delver, turn one plays in Modern are Thoughtseize, Wild Nacatl, and Serum Visions. The first and second are outside our core colours, and if we go the Serum Visions route, we're just becoming a bad Twin deck.

So where do we go from here?
First things first, I want to beef up our attack plan. This means cutting the main deck creatures that simply don't scare anyone. Say bye-bye to Voice of Resurgence, Scavenging Ooze, Qasali Pridemage, Spellskite, Glen Elendra Archmage, and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker.

Next, I want to improve the flexibility of our creature play, add some card advantage and grinding power, and make it so our combo isn't the only way to capitalize on our opponents tapping low. Chord of Calling wasn't getting the job done, but Collected Company will.

"Coco" does a lot of great things for this deck. The most obvious is that it lets us try to flash in Knight of the Reliquary, which certainly matters. Frankly though, I'm equally as interested in flashing in a Kitchen Finks, or better yet Geist of Saint Traft, who also happens to play remarkably well with the Retreats. And then of course there is Eternal Witness.

Coco also comes with a cost, though - it asks us to build around it. Creatures that cost more than three really need to justify their spot in this deck, which means Restoration Angel isn't going to cut it anymore. Similarly, it demands a high total creature count to ensure we're hitting two or more as often as possible - and often enough, mana dorks aren't really going to count as valuable targets since by the time we have four mana, we want to be moving onto bigger and better things. So we're going to need other things to do with our Birds of Paradise.

Equipment like Sword of Feast and Famine can help our dorks remain relevant in the late game, but they also eat into our creature count and are juicy targets for Abrupt Decay. I'd rather play more flexible elements that fit in with the overall deck better, such as...

Elspeth, Knight-Errant is the ideal planeswalker for a deck like this. She can help us go wide, play defense, turn our extra dorks into Lava Spikes, or our Geist of Saint Trafts into nine points of evasive damage. Gavony Township supports the wide plan, forms a premium defense engine with Kitchen Finks, is tutorable with our flagship creature, and doesn't displace a creature. And if Skaab Ruinator wasn't good enough as a recycling depot for its smaller brothers who died before it, Coco-ing into it is an absolute riot.

I've also replaced one Birds of Paradise from the initial list with a Lotus Cobra instead. As a 2-drop that's susceptible to 1-mana removal spells, it's not a card I'm interested in building this deck around, but it does give us another much-needed turn two option, can offer some very explosive ramp if it survives, and is somewhat more relevant on offense.

The last major change I want to make is improving our removal suite. Four copies of Path to Exile is certainly an effective "no-nonsense" approach to interacting with the opposing board, but it doesn't offer any flexibility outside of targeting your own creature for a landfall trigger (not recommended).

Instead, I'd like to mix it with some copies of Dromoka's Command. Not only does this offer very similar removal power via its fight mode in a deck full of fairly high-power creatures, it also gives us great mainboard answers to cards like Anger of the Gods or Blood Moon, as well as a more flexible way to handle Splinter Twin.

If you're looking for icing on the cake, it also plays ridiculously well with Geist of Saint Traft. Attack, fight the Angel against a 3/4 blocker, put a counter on the Geist, and turn a suicide mission into a lossless seven damage? Sign me up.

With all that said and done, here's the list I've finally settled on.

To keep the Coco strategy viable, there is a certain impetus towards keeping the sideboard as 3-CMC-or-less creature-focused as possible. Each choice serves a very important role:

  • Aven Mindcensor is a great addition that helps shore up some of the decks tougher matchups like Tron, or Amulet Bloom, while also maintaining the theme of impactful evasive threats.
  • Spiketail Drakeling might look like a joke, but it is an absolute all-star in certain matchups. Ever wanted to counter someone elses Collected Company with yours? That's a real option now.
  • Loxodon Smiter is just a big body that punishes Liliana of the Veil while still fitting the rest of the deck. Also suitable to play against small Zoo decks.
  • One of the unique features of this deck is how thin it is in the 2-drop slot. This makes Engineered Explosives an absolute blowout against some of the formats most common bodies, such as Dark Confidant, Scavenging Ooze, as well as opposing Tarmogoyfs, while also performing strongly against tokens or 1-drop tribal strategies.
  • If your opponent isn't running red or Disfigure, adding a second Lotus Cobra adds a lot of extra punch, especially on the play. With a fetch in hand, it pays for itself on turn two or three and still lets you hit your 3-drop, while also enabling future big mana plays.
  • Rhox War Monk is slight twist on the GW lifegain plan. A third Kitchen Finks is totally fine here too, I just like this a little better against Nacatls, Bolts, and Rest in Peace.
  • Kataki, War's Wage, Qasali Pridemage, Spellskite, and Scavenging Ooze need little explanation for the situations they shine in, and Negate is a great unexpected 1-of catch all against certain decks.

This version of the deck is a significant improvement from the Kiki-Chord shell I first advocated for. Who knew - Collected Company is a real card. However, I have to admit that the deck is either still not at its full potential, or is simply missing pieces that have yet to be printed. As outlined by Darcy Hartwick two weeks ago, Simic (Blue-Green) is at a serious shortage of powerful effects, and is one of few colour pairs to not have a flagship powerhouse to bring to the table. If it ever gets it, and it costs three or less, it could add a lot to this deck.

Please Santa, I can haz this sometime soon?

I still remain optimistic for the future of the Knightfall combo, but I've put a lot of work into this deck to have it still compete at a sub-tier-two level. I'm still going to keep playing it, because it's fun, but for you Spikes out there, I'm going to advise that this is more of a deck to keep your eye on than a deck to sleeve up.

However if it's fun you're after, sleeve away!

Thanks for entertaining this detour off the Rogue path into a more competitive lens. If it's jank you're after, I promise you won't be disappointed next week.

Until next time, have fun, and may the force be with brew.