March 17, 2016

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Going Rogue: Thing in a Deck

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal but it som####//[ERROR: THE REST OF THIS SENTENCE HAS BEEN RETURNED TO YOUR HAND.]

Sorry about that, let me see if I can replay that opening sentence - or am I already dead?

Today I want to do something a little bit different, and instead of focusing on one particular deck concept, today I'm bringing you a special feature piece on a new deckbuilder's dream from Shadows Over Innistrad - the hottest piece of Magic: The Gathering buzz right now - Thing in the Ice. Okay, coldest. But also hottest. You understand.


Step 1: Cut a hole in the ice.
Step 2: Put your... never mind.

When I first saw this card last week, I was plunged into the classic Magic fanboi's dilemma. On one shoulder, my inner Johnny was yelling "Wow! That thing is incredible! What fun!", meanwhile my inner Spike sat lazily on the other, eyes rolled back 180 degrees, murmuring nothing except "Okay Johnny... whatever you say."

And it's not just me - the jury is completely out on this card among the community. On one hand, there are enough hopefuls for this card that its preorder price was immediately pushed up from its opening of $0.99 to where it's now sitting close to $20. So the hype is real. But once again on the other hand, a lot of very good players are discussing how splashy doesn't necessarily equal good. Some of these points include:

  • Sure, it's huge, but it dies to removal. (Unlike Young Pyromancer, which delivers value based on the same instant or sorcery input, but divides its threats horizontally and allows you to outvalue removal spells.)
  • Four is a lot. Not only does this push you to play out your spells more carelessly than you otherwise might want to, but this is a miserable topdeck later in the game when your hopes of flipping it are low.
  • Bouncing opposing tokens, Slippery Bogles, and Scavenging Oozes seems great, but Kitchen Finks, Snapcaster Mage, and Siege Rhino not-so-much.

Then again, it is easy for a competitively-minded player to dismiss a card simply because its splash factor is deemed laughable, but totally glaze over the plainer elements of the card that are still strong.

  • An 0/4 body in Modern is no slouch. It survives a Lightning Bolt, and can prevent a ton of damage against common early threats like Wild Nacatl, Monastery Swiftspear, and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.
  • It can be a difficult card to play against while you hold mana up, since it flips on the spot. The threat of triggering alone can provide a lot of strategic value.

So it's an interesting card with valid arguments on both sides of the fence regarding its value. So where does it belong? Let's explore a few different options.

Thing in the Blue-Red Delver

The most obvious application of this that jumped to everyone's mind is putting their Thing in UR Delver. (Okay, okay, enough of that joke.) It seems like it might work, and the Occam's Razor principle would suggest that sometimes the most obvious path is the best one to follow.

With creatures like Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer, these decks depend on the right balance between spell-dependant-creatures and spells, at about a 1:2 mix. Disregarding land (which they tend to run light on) and a sideboard, you might expect to see a list something like this:

This balance is critical to the deck's operation, so if we're looking to fit in a playset of Things, we want to be displacing creatures only.

One option would be to do a straight swap for Young Pyromancer, but I'd argue that by requiring more than one removal spell to take care of it, Young Peezy is actually the better (albeit similar) card. The awkward thing about not taking this route, though, is that the two don't play together overly well. While your Elemental tokens are fairly disposable, bouncing them all into oblivion is taking that carelessness a little too far.

Another would be to spread the cuts among the other creatures. This is probably better, although it's worth mentioning that Thing does play well with Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique, so you'll want to limit the cuts there as much as possible.

Either way, we retain the critical problem that Delver decks perform best with its namesake card flipped as a flying 3/2, and if you were lucky enough to flip it easily the first time, you might not have the same luck after you've bounced it and had to replay it.

All in all, I'm going to give Thing in the Ice a failing grade in this build. I've had the opportunity to oppose it in this deck in a testing session and can confirm that while sometimes powerful, it was awkward as part of this strategy.

So maybe Occam's Razor failed us this time. But that doesn't mean Thing in the Ice doesn't have a future in Modern ahead of itself. I have two more ideas to explore here, one janky, one a little more real, but both extra spicy.

Horror Tribal

Okay, I know this sounds bad, but stick with me for a second, because even if the deck is going to need a lot of deeper thinking to fully develop, there is some interesting tech opportunity here.

In strictly card function terms, these three were meant for each other. Hunted Horror is one of few other efficient creatures with the Horror subtype, and its downside is very handily mitigated by bounce effects. Thing's effect will get rid of the Centaurs but leave Hunted Horror behind, and Repeal offers the same service while also cantripping to keep the stream of spells coming to feed the Thing. Heck, even if you can't manage to flip the Thing, it still blocks one of the two Centaurs like a champ.

It's a surprisingly nice trifecta, and it isn't too difficult to imagine a deck coming together around the concept. With a few more redundant and synergistic effects to prevent death-by-a-thousand-Centaurs, this atypical go-big-and-evade take on tribal effects certainly has potential as an idea. Unfortunately, I don't know what these other cards are yet. Surely some exist (like Phantasmal Image or Cackling Counterpart), but identifying the best options could take more time than usual due to the strange mixture of effects going on here. So we're going to put this idea on ice for now.

Thing in a Realistic Shell

Coming up with a successful new deck is a difficult task. It's easy to think about ideal scenarios where the stars align and your interactions execute seamlessly, but the reality is that for a deck to reliably perform, it needs to actually be designed seamlessly. You're in charge of aligning your own stars. Every card needs to be chosen deliberately for the range of strengths and services it offers, so if Thing in the Ice is going to have a role in Modern, it needs a home that a) benefits from early defense, b) can gain unilateral advantage from a bilateral bounce effect, and c) would be improved by a cheaper way to do damage than it already has.

So rather than see Thing in the Ice as a new friend for Delver of Secrets, I think I'd rather see it do work alongside Celestial Colonnade.

Blue-White-X control has fallen in and out of competitive favour for several years now, fluctuating quickly based on the environment surrounding it. Esper variants tend to struggle in aggressive company, while Jeskai versions can get quickly outclassed by creatures too big to bolt. I'm proposing that Thing in the Ice might be a critical piece to answer the problems faced by these decks, and stabilize their spot in the rankings, and here's why:

  • These are decks that already seek early defense in the form of Wall of Omens. Not only does Thing match the wall in its Lightning Bolt and Wild Nacatl-proof stats, it also plays well with it, resetting its ETB trigger.
  • While we're talking about resetting ETB triggers, let's once again recognize the natural two-way synergy between Thing and Snapcaster Mage. Vendilion Clique and Restoration Angel are more cards that make this list, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is another godsend that doesn't get reset by a creature bounce when it matters most.
  • And when it comes to finishing, these decks often have to wait too long to be able to afford the activation on Celestial Colonnade while holding up counterspells, and wind up losing before turning the corner. Thing offers a huge improvement in this area, smacking in for seven without needing to dedicate a single mana to it specifically.

With all that said, a control deck also can't afford a lame topdeck later in the game, which is exactly what Thing is if you don't have a full hand - so maybe four isn't the number after all.

Bearing all that in mind, here's my intial proposal for Thing's best shot at making an impact in Modern:

A lot of the shell isn't fully fleshed out and tested for what changes the deck ought to accept, but the general principle is:

  • With six 0/4s, Lightning Bolts are less necessary than they would be, and Lightning Helixes go further to help the game go long.
  • Similarly, Anger of the Gods can play less fairly than Supreme Verdict, and we have our maindeck bounce-everything effect to help with bigger boards.
  • As far as offense goes, Celestial Colonnade is still an option, but we've cut them down to two with only 23 lands total in the deck. Just getting one good poke in with Thing takes a big chunk out of their life, giving us a win condition that doesn't require us to actually take over the game first.

I'm not convinced Thing in the Ice is half the Modern card a lot of people think it is going to be, but if it has a shell, I think this is the most likely type of home for it.

Regardless of its actual competitive viability, I am very excited to have this card in the Modern card pool, as its silliness potential offers a pretty high ceiling.

That ends our discussion of this Shadows over Innistrad hopeful, but don't worry, it's only seven days before we get onto the next one. (Anyone like Ghosts?) Until then, have fun, and may the force be with brew.