The Dragon Wars had gone badly thus far. As the people had spoken, it was time for an immediate fix...
elcome back to Building on a Budget! If you've followed my run on this column, you'll know one of my golden rules of deckbuilding:
DON'T BE A SLAVE TO YOUR THEME!
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't build a deck around a given theme, card, or combo. It means that you shouldn't sacrifice functionality, fun, or the ability to win for a self-imposed set of rules that impede your deck. My last two Dragon decks have definitely broken my own rule—restrictions on colors for the deck, cards that can be played, and trying to shoehorn every Dragon I could into each deck, regardless of whether they worked well with that deck.
Going forward, those rules are gone. Let's build some good decks around some good Dragons. This is just before the halfway point of Dragon Wars!—Five decks built around the five Dragon Legends from Planar Chaos. This week's deck is based around Teneb, the Harvester. Let's start building, shall we?
In: 4 Teneb, the Harvester
Naturally, we want to start with four copies of Teneb if we're going to build a Dragon Wars deck based on Teneb. Teneb's triggered (not activated—thank you to the many people who pointed this out to me both in the forums and via e-mail) ability allows you to reanimate a creature from either player's graveyard. The problem with building a deck around Teneb is the same as the problem with building a deck around any of the other Dragons—if you have a 6/6 beatstick, does its ability even matter if you're killing your opponent in one to three swings?
This time around, I wanted the answer to be yes. This left me the task of finding a build, idea, or deck that would both let mw play Teneb and let his ability be relevant. The first thing I did was go to Gatherer, and take a look at all of the black, then white, then green cards available in Standard. Quite a few jumped out at me as fun "build-around-me" cards, and none more so than Sleeper Agent.
In: 4 Sleeper Agent
Sleeper Agent is a definite Johnny card from way back in Urza's Sagaland, circa 1998. If the deckbuilding question around Teneb is, "How do I make Teneb relevant without having it just outright kill my opponent?", then the question around Sleeper Agent is "How do I win with Sleeper Agent before my opponent outright kills me?" In order to best answer this question, let's look at the nuances of Sleeper Agent.
Sleeper Agent damages your opponent before it damages you. This is the most important facet of this little guy. If you are at 3 life, and your opponent is at 2 life, playing Sleeper Agent will likely kill them before it kills you. Conversely, if you're at 20 and your opponent is at 20 (say on turn one), Sleeper Agent will kill you a full three turns earlier than it will kill your opponent.
Sleeper Agent deals damage, and does not cause loss of life.
Sleeper Agent is a Minion.
Sleeper Agent costs one mana.
Sleeper Agent is black.
All of these may be obvious (especially the color and mana cost of Sleeper Agent!), but consider the following:
- In order to kill someone with Sleeper Agent, you need to either get ahead on the life race, or find a way to neutralize Sleeper Agent so that it does not attack you down to zero.
- If you choose the route of neutralization, you need to keep it from attacking. Certain cards that will prevent damage dealt by a creature (such as Temporal Isolation or Heart of Light) are no good for stopping Sleeper Agent, since Sleeper Agent deals damage, and does not cause loss of life.
- One route to go would be to give your opponent Sleeper Agent each turn, kill it during their upkeep or attack, and then bring it back and replay it. Cards like Lord of the Undead are no good for Sleeper Agent (since it is a Minion), but Teneb's ability seems perfect for Sleeper Agent.
- Since Sleeper Agent costs one mana, you might be able to get some sort of Proclamation of Rebirth engine going.
- Since Sleeper Agent is black, you also can throw protection from black creatures in front of Sleeper Agent and block it all day long—Whirling Dervish, Paladin en-Vec and White Shield Crusader immediately spring to mind, and a search of cards showed Order of the Stars, Voice of All, and other likely candidates if you went this route.
In the end, I decided the main route I wanted to go was outright neutralization. I need to keep Sleeper Agent in play in order to have it deal damage to my opponent, so removal spells that send creatures to the graveyard (Mortify, Putrefy) were out. Luckily, white is the king of creature-neutralizing enchantments, and there's a certain uncommon artifact in Tenth Edition that seems perfect for this deck.
In: 4 Faith's Fetters, 4 Pillory of the Sleepless, 4 Icy Manipulator
is the go-to white removal card at this point, as it can neutralize any non-mana producing permanent (not just creatures). The 4 life you gain from the Fetters is just gravy on your removal train. Pillory of the Sleepless
, while not quite as mana efficient as Pacifism
, is still a very solid card that fits the Sleeper Agent
motif—why not add that extra point of damage a turn to a stopped Sleeper Agent
? Last, I decide to go with Icy Manipulator
. I could have added another white Aura (Pacifism
, Bound in Silence
), or gone with a black power-reducing card (Clinging Darkness
), but in the end I wanted a more versatile pseudo-removal spell that could both work against multiple permanents over the course of the game, and would be easy to cast for a deck packing three colors of mana.
With the base of removal and kill conditions out of the way, I went browsing for ways to fill out the deck. Teneb is the black, white and green Dragon, and I remembered my notes about a combo from Coldsnap and Planar Chaos that a few people had asked me to build around. It seemed perfect for this deck, so I added it to see how it works.
In: 4 Wall of Shards, 4 Kavu Predator
One of the problems with Kavu Predator
is that there aren't many spells in Standard that force your opponent to gain life. Wall of Shards
is one of those spells. The cumulative upkeep on the Wall forces your opponent to gain more and more life each turn. Normally, this is a drawback—who wants to give their opponent free life? In this deck, Wall of Shards
is a near-perfect fit!
- It allows your to drop Sleeper Agent on turn one, and then have a huge blockers on turn two.
- It helps you steady the early game, when otherwise you might be hit by a weenie rush. Compare Wall of Shards to Angelic Wall. If your opponent has multiple 1/1 utility creatures and weenies (Llanowar Elves, Coiling Oracle, Silhana Ledgewalker), they can attack with impunity into Angelic Wall all day long, since it has zero power. Wall of Shards kills those creatures, plus it is incredibly difficult to removal thanks to its eight toughness.
- Since Wall of Shards gains life for your opponent, it allows for a longer game where Teneb's ability will be relevant—if your opponent is at thirty-plus life, Teneb is going to be swinging more than just a couple of times.
Kavu Predator virtually negates the drawback of Wall of Shards, and provides an early offense to boot.
This is turning out to be one Johnny of a deck. I've put together the pieces of a puzzle that answer the questions "How do I make Teneb relevant?", "How do I stop Sleeper Agent?", and "What is the riddle of the Wall of Shards?" Well, now that I have twelve solid removal spells and a Wall of stopping-all-offense, how do I make sure that there are creatures in graveyards for Teneb to reanimate? Remember, my removal spells neutralize creatures, they don't kill those creatures.
The other two ways to get creatures into a graveyard, aside from killing them, is to either force discard or mill from the deck. Discard is nice, but it is also dependant on being played at just the right time—if your opponent topdecks a creature, or plays it before you draw a discard spell, your discard spell is for naught. For this deck, I want to go the milling route. It offers a couple of advantages—I can mill either myself or my opponent, depending on what I need to reanimate with Teneb, and it gives me an alternate win condition if the board gets mucked up and my Tenebs are either dead or nowhere to be seen. Wall of Shards plus Fetters plus Pillory plus Icy Manipulator equal a potential long-game stall.
In: 3 Millstone
Since I'm already sending cards from the deck to graveyard, I decide to fill the last few non-land slots of the deck with reanimation spells. I chose to use Beacon of Unrest (to grab cards from either graveyard, especially Teneb if he gets killed by an opponent) and Crime // Punishment (both to reanimate from my opponent's territory and to kill permanents en-masse in a pinch).
In: 3 Crime // Punishment, 2 Beacon of Unrest
The last touch is lands. Since this deck is pretty mana-intensive, I want to run twenty-four lands. Terramorphic Expanse will help fix specific colors, and the Ravnica Block bounce lands will provide the multiple-color mana fixing that this deck needs to get going.
In: 2 Orzhov Basilica, 2 Golgari Rot Farm, 3 Selesnya Sanctuary, 4 Terramorphic Expanse, 5 Plains, 7 Swamp, 1 Forest
Game 1: Vinch77 (Mono-Black Zombie Madness)
He gets Grave Pact, Lord of the Undead, Skirk Ridge Exhumer and Loxodon Warhammer. I take out half his board with a Crime // Punishment for three, but he drops Nantuko Husk. I neutralize one with Faith's Fetters and stop two other Zombies with Pillory of the Sleepless. He drops another Lord of the Undead, and starts recurring his Zombies. I eventually succumb to a returned Husk. I end this game with triple Sleeper Agent in hand.
Game 2: Dax_420 (Black-Red Burn)
He gets a couple of early Seal of Fire, and then follows with Dark Confidant. I drop Icy Manipulator, and then give him a Sleeper Agent with Pillory of the Sleepless on it. He kills it with double Seal of Fire, and drops another Dark Confidant. I get Teneb, which he kills with triple burn spells. I then get another Teneb, and give him a second Sleeper Agent. He flips Hit // Run to a Confidant to go to 2 and concedes (I could have sacrificed my Icy to Hit // Run and swung in with Teneb for the win.)
Game 3: Phil2000 (Five-Color)
I get an early Kavu Predator, but it dies to Putrefy after one swing. He then drops Sunforger, Privileged Position, Wild Pair, and Spectral Searchlight. I get Teneb, hit him to bring back Kavu Predator, and then drop Wall of Shards. He plays Bogardan Hellkite, kills my Predator, and doesn't get a second creature. I look forlornly at the Faith's Fetters and Pillory of the Sleepless in my hand (can't target his Dragon because of Privileged Position), swing into a chump block, and then play Beacon of Unrest on his Hellkite to deal 5 to him for the win.
Game 4: Grotesque3 (Blue-Green Simic)
He gets down a bunch of 1/1 creatures and my Sleeper Agent. I get Wall of Shards and hold him down for a while. I then get Teneb, and he gets Stuffy Doll. He plays Evolution Charm on his Doll when I attack to make me eat my own Teneb damage, then Repeals my Wall of Shards, throws Stonewood Invocation on his Sleeper Agent, and kills me in one swing.
Game 5: Shattered74 (Blue-Red Suspend)
This is a very long and involved game. Shattered74 gets a first-turn Rift Elemental, but I get a second-turn Wall of Shards. The Wall keep his guys at bay, and Icy Manipulator slows down his Deep-Sea Kraken. The game comes down to the point where I have to Crime // Punishment to kill his Rift Elemental (so that he doesn't recur Chronomantic Escape every turn). This lets me drop double Kavu Predator, which quickly get to 12/12 each thanks to the long-standing Wall of Shards in play. This allows me creatures that are large enough to punch through for lethal in just a couple of swings.
There's a time to admit when a part of the deck isn't working, and in this deck the time and part is now and Sleeper Agent. So far, Sleeper Agent hasn't won me any games, and I've been stuck with one (or multiple) copies of Sleeper Agent in my hand each game, unwilling or unable to cast it to my advantage. We're five games in, and every time I've drawn a Sleeper Agent I've wished it was any card other than Sleeper Agent in my deck. That's a sure sign that it's got to go.
The rest of the deck so far, I'm happy with. To gas up the deck, I decide to shift a little more green and add in three Harmonize, three Phyrexian Rager (for more offense, and to give myself another target to reanimate with Teneb), and a couple of Forests. I take out a couple of Swamps (since I don't need early black mana for Sleeper Agent anymore, but I do need double green for Harmonize), a Pillory of the Sleepless, an Icy, and all four Sleeper Agents.
Out: 4 Sleeper Agent, 2 Swamp, 1 Pillory of the Sleepless, 1 Icy Manipulator
In: 2 Forest, 3 Harmonize, 3 Phyrexian Rager
Game 6: Jonaldus (Black-Red-Blue Legends)
He gets an early Mishra, Artificer Prodigy, but I get Millstone and mill past a Mishra and a Sol'kanar the Swamp King. He gets double Glass Golem and double Coldsteel Heart, and I play Beacon of Unrest getting his other Mishra, killing the one in play. We then settle down for a long war of attrition, with Wall of Shards holding down the fort against any threats (such as a Moroii that I had played both Faith's Fetters and Pillory of the Sleepless on due to his bounce), and him using Nightmare Void plus a suspended Aeon Chronicler to strip my hand (I had four Faith's Fetters in hand at one point) and draw cards. Thankfully, I get two Icy Manipulators to the board in succession, and I end up decking him thanks to my Millstone, his dredging, and his Chronicler.
Game 7: VaporTrail (Blue-Green Doubling Counters)
I take out his Spike Feeders with Crime // Punishment, stop Evolution Vat with Faith's Fetters, and have Wall of Shards stopping his team. I get three Icy Manipulators on the board, and he gets Mindless Automation and starts getting through his deck. I answer with Teneb, use Teneb to get back Spike Feeders, and use Millstone to try to get juicier targets out of his deck. Eventually I play a Kavu Predator and start pumping it insanely large with one Wall of Shards at twelve counters and a second one just starting out. This is helped by me using Crime to grab a Doubling Season from his graveyard, Teneb to get his Gemhide Sliver, and Beacon of Unrest to get his Evolution Vat. The Kavu swings as a 292/292 creature for lethal damage.
Game 8: Limited Obsession (Black-Red Mana Acceleration)
He drops Platinum Angel
, double Foriysian Totem
and a Phyrexian Totem
. I get Wall of Shards
, Icy Manipulator
, and Teneb. Unfortunately, he plays back-to-back Molten Disaster
s for 14 and 8, killing me before I can reanimate a Bogardan Hellkite
in his graveyard, use it to nail his Platinum Angel
, and survive. I also don't mill him to a second Angel, tap down his first Angel with Teneb, and then reanimate for the win. His Avalanche Riders
on my fourth-turn Orzhov Basilica
was the decider this game.
Game 9: AlbasterDragon (Mono-Black Madness)
He has answers to almost everything I have. I get Teneb, he kills it with Big Game Hunter. I get Phyrexian Rager, he kills it with Nightshade Assassin. I get Kavu Predator or Wall of Shards, and they die to Tendrils of Agony or Dark Withering.
What I have an answer for is his horde of three-cost Trespasser il-Vecs and Big Game Hunters, first with Icy Manipulator, and then with Crime // Punishment for three. I drop two Millstones and proceed to use double Icy and double Millstone to deck AlbasterDragon.
Game 10: nycsimonmd (Black-Red-Blue Control)
I get a quick pair of Kavu Titans and follow it with Phyrexian Rager. Nycsimonmd drops a pair of Rakdos Ickspitter, and I am forced to Crime // Punishment them away after they have killed both of my Titans. I then drop Icy Manipulator, and Teneb. Teneb dies to Clone, but Teneb number two does not. The second Dragon finishes off the remaining 8 points on Nycsimonmd's life total.
I can see a definite improvement in both the results of this deck and my enjoyment of playing it over the past two Dragon decks. Even though Sleeper Agent didn't work out, Wall of Shards, Kavu Predator, and Millstone were great compliments to Teneb—Wall helped buy the time I needed to get Teneb out, Teneb quickly overcame the life totals that my opponents gained from the Wall, and Millstone gave me both an alternate win condition and a way to get creatures into the graveyard for Teneb to reanimate. This deck was a blast to play, but be forewarned—some of your games can go rather long, since you can win by decking or by giving your opponent 50-100 extra life with Wall of Shards, just to take it away over a long, long game involving Teneb and Kavu Predators.
Next week: Oros, the Avenger!