BFZ: Is there a B/G deck?

B/G in Battle for Zendikar limited is sometimes referred to as a sacrifice-based deck and sometimes as an Eldrazi Scion ramp deck. Let’s crunch some numbers to determine which, if either, of these is an accurate description of what B/G has to offer.

Let’s start by looking at 3 categories of cards that are important to either or both decks mentioned above. Within each category, cards are organized by rarity and converted mana cost. The highlight indicates the color of the card, with some exceptions: no highlight (white background) is used for lands, grey highlight is used for colorless/artifact cards, yellow highlight is used for white cards, and gold is used for multicolor cards. Unless specified otherwise, monocolored cards require one colored mana.

  • The Sacrifice table lists cards that allow you to sacrifice a creature. Cards in bold have a reusable ability whose activation cost/condition is listed before the description.
  • The Scions table lists cards that produce Eldrazi Scion tokens. The number of tokens created by the effect is listed in parenthesis, and cards in bold produce a token each time the activation cost/condition listed in the description is met.
  • The Triggers table lists cards that have a beneficial “leaves the battlefield” (dies) trigger. Cards in bold also provide a benefit when other creatures die. (If the description begins with “another C:”, they only provide a benefit when other creatures die.)

I don’t see much potential for a B/G sacrifice deck in these tables.

  • Bone Splinters and perhaps Vampiric Rites are the only common/uncommon sacrifice effects that I’d be happy to run, but there are an average of only 3.3 of them in an 8-person draft, and you’ll usually have to share Bone Splinters with other black drafters.
  • None of the common/uncommon “leaves the battlefield” triggers are particularly impressive.
  • Even the B/G multicolor cards are not as good as they would be in a different environment; the many 4-, 5-, and 6-toughness creatures mean that the bodies on Catacomb Sifter and Brood Butcher are irrelevant against half the decks in the format.
  • While Turn Against combos well with sacrifice effects, it’s an uncommon, costs 5 mana, and requires splashing another color.

Consequently, I would rather draft G/W Allies (which has other ways/reasons to produce tokens) and splash Bone Splinters and Brood Butcher.

How about a B/G ramp deck that uses Eldrazi Scion tokens to power out large monsters? From the Scions table, it’s clear that G/U is a more appropriate color combination for a deck aiming to do that. I also don’t think a strategy focused on ramping out a single large monster is viable since there are many answers available at common: white has Sheer Drop and Smite the Monstrous, blue has Clutch of Currents, Murk Strider, and Tightening Coils, black has Bone Splinters, and all colors have access to Scour from Existence.

So there doesn’t appear to be a good B/G deck in this format. While there are some interesting interactions, they don’t appear to be numerous or powerful enough. G/W/b/x Allies and perhaps G/U monsters are better alternatives.

ORI: Elves

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There are a number of Elf tribal cards in Magic Origins: Dwynen’s Elite, Eyeblight Massacre, Gnarlroot Trapper, Shaman of the Pack, and Sylvan Messenger at uncommon, and Dwynen Gilt-Leaf Daen at rare. Gnarlroot Trapper and Sylvan Messenger require a critical mass of Elves, usually 10+, before they’re playable; the rest are playable without other Elves but get better as you have more. Does Magic Origins have enough playable Elves to make it likely that you’ll be able to draft that many playable Elves?

Let’s start by enumerating the playable Elves in the format at each rarity, along with their converted mana cost. (The only unplayable Elves in the format are Thornbow Archer and perhaps Sylvan Messenger.)

  • Common: Elvish Visionary (2cc), Leaf Gilder (2), Deadbridge Shaman (3), Eyeblight Assassin (3), Yeva’s Forcemage (3), Llanowar Empath (4)
  • Uncommon: Gnarlroot Trapper (1), Dwynen’s Elite (2), Shaman of the Pack (3), Sylvan Messenger (4)
  • Rare: Dwynen Gilt-Leaf Daen (4), Gilt-Leaf Winnower (5)
  • Mythic: Nissa Vastwood Seer (3)

This means that an average of 19 playable Elves are opened at an 8-person draft, of which 3.6 (the uncommons) are usually only valued by Elves decks. If there are no other players drafting Elves at the table and if we draft them highly enough, we can probably draft most of the uncommon Elves and about half of the rest, ending up with about 11.3 of the 19 Elves. This means that if you see a Gnarlroot Trapper or a Sylvan Messenger halfway through pack 1, there’s a reasonable chance that you can take it and draft enough Elves to make it good. (Note that even if your deck has 10 Elves, Sylvan Messenger is only going to net you 1 Elf on average, so it’s still worse than Llanowar Empath which gives you more control over your next draw steps.)

The 6 Elf tribal cards are all uncommons and rares, so there’re only about 5 of them in an 8-person draft. This means we will rarely want to focus on drafting Elves with the hope of picking up the tribal cards later in the draft. However, almost all the Elves are playable on their own merits, so if you’re in black and/or green, you’re likely to have some Elves, and you may be able to switch to an Elves deck if you see Elf tribal cards early enough in the draft.

Is it possible to have an Elf deck that’s not B/G? Of the 19 playable Elves in an average 8-person draft, 12 are green, 6 are black, and 1 is B/G. This means that B/X is unlikely, but G/X might be possible. If we assume that we get all the uncommon green Elves and half the rest, then we end up with an average of 7 Elves. That’s enough for some of the Elf tribal cards like Dwynen Gilt-Leaf Daen and Dwynen’s Elite, but not enough for Sylvan Messenger.

Finally, let’s take a look at the converted mana costs of the Elves in both colors. There are 0.9 at 1cc, 5.7 at 2cc, 8.3 at 3cc, 3.7 at 4cc, and 0.4 at 5cc. The high number of playable Elves at 3cc means that Gnarlroot Trapper is even better than I’d thought since it accelerates you to your 3-drops, and that Yeva’s Forcemage is a bit worse than it might otherwise be.

I have yet to draft a focused Elves deck. There have been 2 instances when I drafted a couple of Eyeblight Massacres in later packs, but only had about 6 Elves, which is the number you’d expect to end up with if you’re B/G but are not drafting Elves, and no one at the table is drafting Elves either. Given the numbers above, I expect I will attempt the archetype the next time I get passed Eyeblight Massacre, Gnarlroot Trapper, Shaman of the Pack, or Dwynen Gilt-Leaf Daen in pack 1.

M15: Mill and self-mill cards

Magic 2015 has only 2 cards that let you mill your opponent: Mind Sculpt and Grindclock (rare). Grindclock is playable as the only mill card in a control deck since it enables a turn 11 win if played on turn 2 and set to 5-9 counters. Mind Sculpt is unplayable, even in multiples; if you assume a typical game in this format runs about 10 turns (a generous assumption given the speed of aggressive decks in the format), you still have to mill 23 cards. That requires you draw 4 Mind Sculpts, 3 if your opponent plays any draw spells or self-mill cards. By turn 10, you’ve seen about half your deck, which means you need to have drafted 6-8 Mind Sculpts, but an 8-person draft will only have 2.4 of them on average.

The set does have a few other cards that let you mill yourself and several cards that benefit from you having more cards in your graveyard. There are 4 cards that allow you to mill yourself: Satyr Wayfinder, Necromancer’s Assistant, Jace the Living Guildpact (mythic), and the previously mentioned Grindclock (rare); Mind Sculpt only allows you to mill opponents. This means that an 8-person Magic 2015 draft has an average of only 5.6 cards that let you mill yourself. If you’re playing B/G/u and draft all 5.6 of these cards, this means that 1 out of 7 cards in the resulting deck will be a self-mill card, so you can expect to have 1 in your starting hand and draw another over the course of the game.

Next, let’s look at the cards that benefit from having cards in your graveyard to see whether 1-2 self-mill spells is sufficient to power them. Magic 2015 offers us Return to the Ranks (rare), Endless Obedience (uncommon), Gravedigger (uncommon), Liliana Vess (mythic), Soul of Innistrad (mythic), Unmake the Graves, Restock (uncommon), Undergrowth Scavenger, Vineweft (unplayable), and Profane Memento (uncommon). Looking at this list makes it clear that self-mill decks in Magic 2015 (as in most recent formats) are B/G. Of these, there are only a handful of common/uncommon cards that I’d be happy to play if I were only expecting to see 1-2 self mill cards over the course of a game: Endless Obedience, Gravedigger, Unmake the Graves, and Restock.

Looking at both sides of the equation, it seems that there are neither enough self-mill cards nor enough powerful commons and uncommons that benefit from them to make it worth trying to assemble a dedicated B/G self-mill deck. However, it could be a reasonable subtheme in a B/X deck that has a couple of Necromancer’s Assistants.

THS/BNG: Enters-the-battlefield effects and reanimation spells

In my most recent post, I discussed how Rescue from the Underworld lets us reuse enters-the-battlefield effects. In the past, I’ve also discussed how Triad of Fates lets you do that. There are also other reanimation spells in Theros and Born of the Gods — Fated Return, Champion of Stray Souls, and the temporary reanimation of Whip of Erebos — as well as March of the Returned and Pharika’s Mender, which require you to recast the creature. However, I haven’t yet done a comprehensive review of all the enters-the-battlefield effects on creatures in the format, which could help us decide which color to pair with black if we find that we have more that a couple of reanimation effects in our deck. Let’s do that now. In the list below, italics denote a relatively weak enters-the-battlefield ability or an unplayable creature, [] denotes rares and mythics, and bold indicates that the trigger happens when other creatures enter the battlefield.

  • White: Evangel of Heliod, Griffin Dreamfinder, Lagonna-Band Elder, Leonin Snarecaster
  • Blue: Breaching Hippocamp, Horizon Scholar, [Master of Waves]*, Mnemonic Wall, Omenspeaker
  • Black: [Abhorrent Overlord], Blood-Toll Harpy, Disciple of Phenax, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Mogis’s Marauder, Odunos River Trawler, Returned Centaur
  • Red: Fanatic of Mogis, Minotaur Skullcleaver, [Purphoros God of the Forge], Wild Celebrants
  • Green: Nylea’s Disciple, [Reverent Hunter], Satyr Wayfinder, Setessan Starbreaker
  • Multicolor: [Ashen Rider], Chronicler of Heroes, [Ephara God of the Polis], Pharika’s Mender

* The Elementals already in play die when Master of Waves is not in play, so this only helps if you’ve lost some of the Elementals in combat or if you now have a higher devotion to blue.

There are also a few creatures that have a trigger when they die: Forsaken Drifters, Loathsome Catoblepas, and [Ashen Rider]. [Reaper of the Wilds] and Fate Foretold also trigger when other creatures or the creature they’re enchanting dies.

Looking at the lists above, we see that black has the most and highest quality enters-the-battlefield effects, but that most of the other colors have 2-3 good enters-the-battlefield effects on creatures that are not rares or mythics.

Of course, Rescue from the Underworld and Fated Return can also be used purely for their reanimation. There are a number of cards in black, green, and blue that allow you to get cards from your library into your graveyard: Returned Centaur, Forsaken Drifters, Satyr Wayfinder, Commune with the Gods, Evanescent Intellect, Thassa’s Bounty, Steam Augury, and even Phenax God of Deception (although you’d usually want to use it to target your opponent). The best of these effects are in green, and they can be used to try to mill an expensive creature like Ashen Riders, or for a creature that is otherwise difficult to cast, such as Chromanticore. And if you end up drawing one of the cards accidentally, there are also a handful of discard outlets in the format (Epiphany Storm, Erebos’s Emissary, Prognostic Sphinx, and potentially also Disciple of Phenax, Ordeal of Erebos, and Thoughtseize). Given these colors of these effects, a reanimation deck would probably be a B/G graveyard deck with some reanimation, or a U/B control deck with perhaps some incidental self-mill.