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A different take on mix-and-match, Johnny style.

Gibber Jabber

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The letter H!owdy, all. It's preview time, so throw away your crystal balls and prepare to fast-forward. The future is nigh. And by "nigh," I mean four paragraphs away. Does it get any nigher than that?

A little while ago, in my Masques of Kamigawa article and then later in my "What If?" Week article, I had a grand old time imagining what a Standard composed of two non-adjacent sets could look like. It was quite eye-opening to discover exactly how much synergy there was between blocks as different as Mercadian Masques and Champions of Kamigawa. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and the Betrayers of Kamigawa ninjas teamed up with the Rishadan pirates to form what is arguably the greatest ninja-pirate deck ever featured in my column. Cards like Gush, Ensnare, and the "Howling Wolf" cycle fit in perfectly with the "hand-size matters" theme of Saviors of Kamigawa. Territorial Dispute, one of the most busted cards ever printed if you only read the first half of the card, is a perfect match for Sakura-Tribe Scout and Budoka Gardener, as well as Terrain Generator and Groundskeeper from its own block.

Normally, these interactions only show up in Extended (and beyond), where something like Golgari's Dredge gets to realize its full potential alongside some of Odyssey block's powerhouses like Putrid Imp. Yeah, yeah, and Psychatog, Ichorid, Wild Mongrel, etc.

Well, if you happened to listen to the latest podcast on this here site here, or if you read Mark's column on Monday, you'd know that among the non-timeshifted cards is a collection of "mix-and-match" cards. What do they mix and what do they match? Why, mechanics of course. Keyworded mechanics to be precise. So instead of imagining how certain mechanical pairings would have interacted had they been in the same Standard, we get to see the interaction of lots of mechanics from the history of the game in the same block.

Picture it: Convoke and Buyback. Madness and Cycling. Buyback and Storm. Third Strike and Phases with Others (Note: Not actual mechanics). Some of these pairings are so synergistic that the resultant cards are practically one-card combos. Others, like the card I'm previewing today, are a little more subtle. Like a half-man, half-dog, my preview is its own best friend. Check it out:

Gibbering Descent

As you can see, it's got Hellbent and Madness. While those two mechanics don't have much direct synergy, they get along well with the same third-party: something that lets you discard cards from your hand for some benefit.

One of the tricky things about building Madness decks has always been striking that balance between Madness cards (Arrogant Wurm, Violent Eruption, and Circular Logic) and Madness enablers (Wild Mongrel, Compulsion, and, my favourite, Wild Research). Sure, it's tough to beat a turn-two Wild Mongrel, followed by a turn-three Arrogant Wurm, and a turn-four Roar of the Wurm. However, if you take away that Mongrel (or Aquamoeba, or Merfolk Looter, or Psychatog) and suddenly you have five- and seven-mana wurms, it's slightly less appealing. Okay, a lot less appealing. Hellbent has the same issue. What makes Gibbering Descent such a neat little package is the fact that it enables both mechanics all by itself.

Wake Up, Baby, 'Cause I'm Coming to you from the Future

Merfolk Assassin and War BargeAs I've mentioned before in this column, I stopped playing Magic for a few years, roughly from Mirage through to Mercadian Masques. This happened for a number of reasons. Most importantly, though, I moved far away from all of my Magic-playing cronies, and despite the fact that my younger brothers played (and we conveniently shared a residence), they were eventually turned off the game by the dominance of my Merfolk Assassin / War Barge deck. To this day, we often refer to that dark time as War Barge Winter.

Skip ahead a few years to Invasion block. Through a series of freak coincidences, I discovered that all of my college roommates were also lapsed Magic players. In no time at all, our CCG fires were rekindled and quickly became a five-alarm fireball straight to our collective domes. Soon after that, I learned that my poor old War Barge deck lost to just about everything. I got crushed by blue/black decks using cards like Hypnotic Specter, which hadn't ever impressed me until that point. I got stomped by red/green decks that operated on the principle that it's the last fatty that kills you, even if that fatty happens to be Shambling Strider, Wiitigo, or Marhault Elsdragon. Heck, I even lost to a deck full of Griffins, and these weren't a bunch of fun-loving Griffins from Rhode Island, either. My poor aquatic assassin was having trouble offing the 2/2's for four due to a week's detention in a Serra Bestiary. My deck was shielded from errant pizza-toppings by some always-classy penny sleeves, but it had no protection whatsoever from round-after-round of humiliating defeat. Sadly, it fared even worse in group games.

I vowed to exact revenge, but I didn't know exactly what kind of revenge I'd exact. One weekend during the Christmas break, I hit up ye olde comic book shoppe to peruse their wares. Well, it turned out that the entirety of the wares was a box full of "commons" that the store was trying to unload. I say "commons" because some of the cards turned out to be uncommons, but I don't the think the shopkeep knew or cared. Neither did I. Among the 400 or so cards that I picked up that day were playsets of both Megrim and Gibbering Descent's grandfather, Bottomless Pit. Creative guy that I am, I managed to put two and two together, saw the nifty synergy between those two cards, and with the aid of some Ravenous Rats and the occasional Probe with Kicker, went on to annoy everyone I played with for months to come.

Now, Gibbering Descent owes a lot to Bottomless Pit (and, later, Necrogen Mists). Once you run out of cards in hand and reach Hellbent-status, Gibbering Descent acts like an asymmetrical version of another card: Eon Hub. Unlike both of its ancestors, however, Gibbering Descent gets better the more copies of it that you have in play. Eon Hub shuts down everyone's upkeep step, but you only get one of those, so shutting one of them down is enough. Multiple Bottomless Pits quickly become redundant unless your opponents are drawing several cards per turn. Because it not only forces discard at the beginning of each player's upkeep, but also causes the loss of one life each time, Gibbering Descent will never be dead in your hand. Better still, it doesn't need any friends. I hope you don't need any, either, because Gibbering Descent is a slow and annoying win condition all by its lonesome.

Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing (During her Upkeep)

The upkeep phase is a fine place to be if you're a Honden or a Bringer or an Enduring Ideal. If, however, you self-identify as a Tectonic Fiend, a Deranged Hermit, or, god forbid, an Albino Troll (I'm looking at you, [name withheld]), then you might find that the upkeep phase is a real style-cramper. The same goes for all of you high-maintenance fatties like Lord of the Pit, Force of Nature, Mishra's War Machine, and just about any of your fat, pre-Invasion pals (see Aaron's Fat: A Retrospective article for details). If you're extremely high-maintenance, like Aboroth or Phyrexian Soulgorger, you probably aren't too fond of your Upkeep Years, either.

Luckily, a Hellbent Gibbering Descent provides all of these overly-demanding monsters with a little loan-forgiveness. Buy now, don't pay interest for...ever. One of these creatures, Vexing Sphinx, even helps to set up a Hellbent Descent while enabling its Madness at the same time.

Unlike Eon Hub, but kinda like another card I previewed, Paradox Haze, Gibbering Descent allows you to break the symmetry of some very nasty cards. Keep an eye out for cards that trigger at the beginning of each player's upkeep. Your opponent will bear the brunt of your Braids, Cabal Minion, for example, while you get off scot-free. Similar cards include Call to the Grave, The Abyss, Kuon, Ogre Ascendant, and Smokestack (though with the latter, you'll have to endure at least one upkeep in order to acquire a Soot counter). Smokestack's long-time companion, Tangle Wire, is particularly nasty when your opponents are the only ones taking an upkeep. Each turn, they'll have to tap down their permanents, but you won't. Better yet, since you skip your upkeep, you'll never have to remove any Fade counters!

Some cards I've always like to play with Bottomless Pit include Noetic Scales, Blood Clock, Umbilicus, and Sunken Hope. They all make it very difficult for your opponents to play out their hands, which makes the discard even more frustrating.

One last card that I want to mention is Jinxed Choker. Under normal circumstances, it deals damage to its controller during his or her upkeep. Then, at the end of the turn, that player passes the Choker to someone else. If you don't have an upkeep, you'll gain control of the Choker – feel free to charge it up while you have it! – but you won't have to take any damage from it. Then just pass it back!

Get Down, Get Down

I could be wrong, but I think the most likely place to which one would descend (while gibbering) would be the fiery depths of heck. H-E-Double-hockey-sticks. They have plenty of fire there, tons of Madness, and I hear the guy who's in charge wields an axe made of frickin' lightning (or at least he or she should). Gibbering Descent enables the Madness of both Fiery Temper and Violent Eruption, and is in turned enabled by Lightning Axe, Kindle the Carnage, Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace, and the Great Dame of Flame herself, Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. All of these cards accelerate you to Hellbent, which is a nice place to be if you're a Magus of the Scroll or an anthropomorphized Demonfire. Once you get to your hand-free destination, let Gibbering Descent make it upkeep-free as well. That would make both Sulfuric Vortex and the aforementioned Jinxed Choker very happy.

If you're not, like, a pyromaniac, and burning things to a crisp doesn't float your boat, try this. Both Braids, Cabal Minion and Liege of the Pit are very unpleasant people to be around during the upkeep. They get really testy and start to demand sacrifices. To keep them contented, you can do a couple of things. One, put your head in the sand and pretend the upkeep doesn't exist (perhaps by playing a Hellbent Gibbering Descent). Or two, find a pair of Nether Traitors. Put one in the bin and the other in play and you'll be able to sacrifice them (alternately) all day. Nether Traitors are fine fodder for Kuon, Ogre Ascendant's sacrifice ability as well (and flashing back Dread Return is a great way to put Kuon into play).

Razormane Masticore has an almost uncanny symbiosis with Gibbering Descent. It has a pretty steep upkeep cost, but that cost is discarding a card which conveniently provides you with a Madness outlet for Gibbering Descent. By the time you have no more cards in hand and therefore can no longer pay that cost, you will be skipping your upkeep anyway! It's like the opposite of a Catch-22. Or something. The kicker is that the Masticore's other triggered ability actually triggers at the beginning of your draw step, and not at the beginning of your upkeep like you might expect.

To help you get your Gibbering Descents out early, I've used Putrid Imp, Zombie Infestation, and the card Mark Rosewater previewed on Monday, Gathan Raiders. A pair of Nightshade Assassins are the only other Madness cards, but Nether Traitor and Dread Return are fine to discard as well. I added some Lavaborn Muses because they not only work well with multiple Gibbering Descents, but they also introduce a nice tension when you also have Braids and/or Kuon and/or Razormane Masticore on the table. If your opponent doesn't play any more permanents, Braids will quickly gobble up the existing ones, but if he or she does commit more cards to the board, the Muse will start doing it's old Lightning-Bolt-you-every-turn routine.

Until next time, have fun gibbering!

Chris Millar

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