Chasing the White Whale

Written by Administrator on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Standard

Confession time, folks; I hate writing card reviews during spoiler season. Without putting too fine a point on it, they’re incredibly boring. Typically, the drill goes something like this:

  • Get assigned some vaguely interesting hunk of cardboard by an editor to review for the audience
  • Sit down and write roughly a page and a half worth of bullshit about the pros and cons of this card without falling back on the tired trope that “it’s probably good in Limited.”
  • Take a half-hearted guess at where this new card fits into the established metagame while noting repeatedly that you can’t say for sure because you haven’t seen the full spoiler or done any playtesting yet. Remember to declare that if nothing else, the card will see sideboard play eventually.
  • Avoid slitting your wrists long enough to submit the article and then try to forget that you ever wrote it.

Take my word for it; this process isn’t fun and I work pretty hard to dodge these assignments. The “vast majority” doesn’t mean always, however, and once in a while a special card will come along that demands my attention. Frankly, it’s usually not even about the power level of the card involved; I had no interest in writing about Huntmaster of the Fells despite knowing that it was going to tear Standard up the moment I saw it. No, the special combination for me is an intoxicating mix of power, versatility and just a whiff of mystery. I want to be challenged. I want a card that dares me to unlock its hidden power and laughs at my pathetic attempts to define it in terms of the current environment. I want to wish impossible things, to chase the white whale and when I finally catch it, to shake the pillars of heaven and earth. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one: Duskmantle Seer dreams with me.

Isn’t he beautiful, ladies and gentlemen? Okay, to be fair, the art is pretty mediocre but once we get to the text box and numbers you’ll want to kiss his shiny bald head. In a vacuum, we’re talking about a 4/4 flying beater that promises to keep your hand full while simultaneously threatening to deal extra damage to your opponent on your upkeep. Of course, the downside is that he also promises to keep your opponent’s hand full. This is partially mitigated by the Seer’s trigger occurring during your upkeep; presumably after your opponent has tapped all his lands to cast creatures and sorceries. Most of the time you’re going to be able to play your card first and his revealed card actually helps you plan out your turn(s). At the end of the day, however, you and your opponent are still drawing the same number of cards and good Magic players are hardwired to dislike symmetrical card draw effects.

If you’re strictly doing “card math” the Seer is basically a stone blank 4/4 flyer and that’s nothing to write home about.  Do you remember how dominant Moroii was in the previous Ravnica format? Of course not; a 4/4 blank flyer hasn’t been particularly playable in Constructed Magic since Waterspout Djinn saw occasional play in Mono Blue control decks.  If we’re going to unlock the true power of Duskmantle Seer then we’re going to need a way to “cheat” his symmetrical draw effect so that we benefit more than our opponent does. While I won’t claim this list is exhaustive (I haven’t been able to play a single game with Seer after all), let’s look at some of the ways we can accomplish this goal:

  • Just go faster: The most obvious answer is to kill our opponent before he can cast the spells the Seer is putting into his hand. This means that on a perfect curve, we want to untap with lethal damage on the board to begin turn 5 and then presumably use the two cards we’re drawing to clear a path and kill our opponent.
  • Gain a bunch of life: The theory here is simple: if I’m gaining life while my Vampire is causing you to lose life then I’m essentially drawing cards for free and you aren’t. Unfortunately, this is going to be almost impossible to accomplish in the current Standard format because everyone and their grandmother runs multiple life gain spells. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • Play cheaper spells than they do: This one is also pretty obvious in my opinion. If I’m flipping cards that cost 1-3 mana and you’re turning over 4 and 5 drop Planeswalkers, I’m going to end up ahead on life pretty quickly. This is also greatly aided by the fact that I’m probably beating the crap out of you with a 4/4 Vampire at the same time. Sometimes Magic is simple: if his life total hits zero before yours does, you win the game, dummy.
  • Draw more cards than they do: One of the easiest ways to mitigate symmetrical card draw effects is to simply draw so many cards that the free one you’re giving him is a drop in the bucket. This is somewhat difficult in modern Magic because outright card draw is heavily restricted but we can still run a bunch of cantrips and enough discard effects to poach key threats. The downside here is that you can’t win games of Magic simply by drawing a bunch of cards so we’ll need something to draw into that will win us the game; multiple 4/4 Vampires probably won’t cut it.
  • Cast more spells than they do: On the surface, this may seem like I’m repeating myself; after all, if you draw more cards than they do you’re probably going to play more spells. The difference is that instead of drawing cards that draw more cards until we find a way to win, in this example we’re simply trying to affect the game more than our opponent does and thereby overwhelm him. Think two-for-one effects like Snapcaster Mage, counterspells like Dissipate or cards with Flashback like Sever the Bloodline.
  • Manipulate someone’s Library: Once again, this is going to be somewhat difficult to accomplish in the current Standard environment. WotC seems unlikely to reprint Brainstorm or Jace, the Mind Sculptor anytime soon. For the moment, we’re probably stuck with manipulating the top of our opponent’s library a la Azorius Charm. If we can guarantee that our opponent is going to lose 4-7 life at the start of our next turn, we should be able to kill him in short order.

Now, before you get too excited let me say that I don’t believe the deck that will ultimately unleash Duskmantle Seer on Standard exists yet. Without some sort of Brainstorm effect you simply can’t play him in midrange builds with other fatties and he doesn’t jive well in a control deck full of 5CC Planeswalkers and 4CC sweepers either.  If you look at the above criteria, it becomes obvious that the Seer belongs in a deck that can emulate classic blue/black aggressive strategies. He’d be at home in a deck that functioned like Knight-Weenie Necropotence or a U/B “Fish” style deck. Unfortunately, Standard is a little short on other cards to support these archetypes at the moment and the environment itself is hardly welcoming. For starters, the best black aggro deck (R/B Zombie) in the format doesn’t really want the Seer. This is partially because B/R doesn’t need blue cards to win the game on turn 5 right now and partially because our boy actively argues with better creatures they already run.

Let’s be honest: Duskmantle’s mother would have a hard time saying he’s better than any one of these cards in an aggro deck. Even assuming you can run enough Shocklands to make the U in his casting cost irrelevant, he lacks Haste, requires a random reveal to do extra damage and doesn’t grind games out as well as Falkenrath Aristocrat. More disturbingly, if you were to include the Seer over one of these cards you’d run the risk of taking massive piles of damage when you revealed the other 4-5cc creatures in your deck. Maybe you can talk yourself into running the Vampire over Hellrider, but can you legitimately say it’s worth losing X copies of Aristocrat and Thundermaw Hellkite as well? I certainly can’t and as such I can safely say that if the Seer’s final home is in Grixis it will be in a deck that’s completely different than the Rakdos Aggro we know today.

If you were going to shove the Seer into an existing aggro shell it would probably resemble the U/B Zombies build that rocked Standard when Phantasmal Image was legal. Unfortunately, losing the Image’s ability to copy Diregraf Captain and Blood Artist hurts the deck tremendously but Gatecrash does offer some promising alternatives, including our boy Duskmantle Seer. With a gun to my head and 5 minutes to formulate an answer, I’d probably come up with something like this:

Obviously this build is somewhat rough; after all, I just built it here on the spot and I purposely went out of my way to use a number of new cards from Gatecrash. I’d advise thinking of this deck as a starting point for brewing your own, tighter Seer aggro deck. This probably isn’t the best Black aggro deck in Standard and all things considered, it may not even be the best U/B Zombie aggro deck in Standard; I really couldn’t say before playtesting it. On paper, it lacks the pure damage output that Rakdos aggro can present and I’d describe it as “quick and grindy” before I called it “fast.” Despite these shortcomings, you can clearly see the foundations of a cheap, aggressive U/B deck built around swarming your opponent with creatures and generating card advantage. I even threw in a couple of sweet trick plays, like using Dimir Charm to set your opponent up for maximum damage with a Seer in play or casting Devour Flesh on yourself at end step to trigger Geralf’s Messenger and set up an attack for 3 (or 4). Whether or not this deck is actually viable in Standard is another question entirely, but as far as baselines go it meets most of our above criteria for abusing Duskmantle Seer.

Turning our attention towards Fish/Fae style decks, however, is a little more promising. Although it has taken a beating since Ravnica pushed out key cards like Ponder, Vapor Snag and Seachrome Coast, the simple truth is that Delver of Secrets is always lurking. Once again, with 5 minutes to find an answer or die, this is the sort of list I’d come up with:

Once again, the idea here is to provide a basic outline for what a “Fish” deck with Duskmantle Seer might look like post-Gatecrash. The key word here is basic, folks; as anyone who’s ever played previous versions of Delver can tell you, the deck usually takes an incredible amount of testing and tuning to find the right mix of spells for a given tournament. More so than any other deck I can remember in 15 years of playing Magic, Delver morphs and shifts to counteract the metagame that forms around it. This deck is designed to be an aggressive tempo build focused on tapping your opponent’s creatures out rather than countering them or bouncing them back to his hand like traditional Delver. Here, Duskmatle serves the role of the finishing creature while ensuring a constant supply of cheap, efficient spells.

I personally went with Blind Obedience over Runechanter’s Pike as my “one non-creature card that won’t flip a Delver” but either option seems reasonable here. If you were running Pike, I’d be tempted to cut a Snapcaster and a Traft for 2x Augur of Bolas and find a way to include a fourth Feeling of Dread. Regardless of how you build it, the key is to use a combination of cheap cantrips and Flashback spells to maximize the value of Delver, Snapcaster and Duskmantle while simultaneously beating down with flyers.

As you can see from the lists above, it is  possible to shoehorn Duskmantle Seer into existing decks here in Standard with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, whether it’s Grixis, Delver or U/B Zombies most of these options seem pretty underwhelming in the context of our current Standard format.  The Seer is unlikely to be an actively bad card in these builds, but he certainly won’t carry them by himself either. This becomes a problem when you consider the relative success (or lack thereof) these decks have had in the current Standard format.  It’s certainly possible that Gatecrash will trigger a format shift that makes these options more viable; at a minimum, Blind Obedience will likely weaken the strength of Rakdos strategies built around Haste for example.

Realistically, Duskmantle Seer and his many admirers will likely be forced to wait for new cards to be printed before this monster fully unleashes itself on the Standard format. The potential is certainly real but at this exact moment I feel like the rest of the card pool finds ways to let our boy down. Duskmantle is the kind of card that could lead to a bold reimagining of U/B aggro and tempo (fish) strategies but he’s not going to get there surrounded by conditional removal and stone blank Zombies. The two-drop slot alone in this deck is a nightmare; you don’t want to play Snapcaster on Turn 2 and Knight of Infamy provides virtually no synergy with the rest of the build.

In short, at this exact moment Duskmantle Seer has the look of a very fine piece of cardboard that lacks a real home in Standard. The line between random four-drop and format-defining monster is very thin here however; a functional reprint of Doom Blade here and a good pump Knight with First Strike there would go a long way to spotlighting the Seer. Frankly, an aggressive 1 drop creature in Blue that didn’t demand we run 24 instants and sorceries wouldn’t hurt either. It really wouldn’t take much and it’s certainly possible that some of these cards exist in Standard and I just haven’t found them yet. In my dreams, I see the day of the Seer and there is no doubt in my mind that this day is coming sooner rather than later. Until then, he’ll likely sit in my trade binder next to the last white whale I became completely obsessed with: Armada Wurm. That is a story for another time:  “good night, sweet reader, and may flights of Vampire Bobs sing thee to thy rest.”

-nina

PS – While I do my best to never dabble in MTG Finance discussions, I can’t help but wonder if Duskmantle Seer is the next Thundermaw Hellkite. My feeling is that initially he’s only going to see play as a singleton/two-of option in decks that don’t really need him to function, much like Thundermaw was only attractive as a techy option in Birthing Pod or a sideboard card in R/G Aggro when it first debuted. This lack of play will likely cause a massive price drop because history has taught us that Mythics that don’t see a lot of play in Standard have trouble holding their initial pre-order value for more than a couple of weeks after release. A smart man could wait a little while for the bottom to drop out on Duskmantle Seer before acquiring a huge pile of them at rock bottom prices once people realized the card lacked a home. If by some chance future cards or even just a simple Standard rotation caused the Seer to suddenly realize his potential, the man holding onto all of those Seers would look very smart indeed. Of course, I’m not exactly a finance girl so you’d probably be crazy to take my advice, but there is some historical precedent here: Hero of Bladehold, Geist of Saint Traft and Thundermaw Hellkite all come to mind.

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