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Threshold Analysis: White

Zvi Mowshowitz

Threshold is a very interesting mechanic in Limited, especially in the same format as flashback cards. In a Constructed format, they're something very different from what they are in Limited. On the one hand, decks can be designed specifically to acquire threshold as soon as possible. On the other hand, the threshold cards have much stiffer competition. Going up against the other cards in a pack, cards like Springing Tiger and Mystic Zealot would almost always see play even without their threshold abilities. It's not clear anyone would use Mystic Zealot in Standard even if it was just a straight 3/5 flyer. Springing Tiger would become a four casting cost 5/5, a good deal and the best creature of its type but still not universal in green creature decks given the ability to use the flashback creatures instead. This means that a real threshold deck divides into three categories. There are the threshold cards, there are the cards that get the deck to threshold, and the rest of the deck. First, there need to be threshold cards worth using. There's also the option to just put a threshold card or two into a normal deck that will commonly get to seven cards naturally. The clearest example would be putting Barbarian Ring into Sligh decks, so that will be the first card I'll look at. I'll go down the list, skipping those that clearly don't make the cut. What many of these cards do is force players to consider what's important in the various stages of the game, rethinking ideas of land ratios and raw power. That's in addition to what it does to cards that fill up the graveyard.

First come the lands. In Limited these lands are often ironic, because they need to be sacrificed to get threshold but they can only be sacrificed if the player already has threshold. Because of that, I've been avoiding them so far. The trade-off is the one damage they do when tapped for mana in exchange for the option to sacrifice them later in the game. By far the best one is clearly Barbarian Ring, and it fits into the type of deck that can most afford to take extra damage early on. The latest printed Sideboard includes a decklist for modern Sligh in Extended that uses the card, where it also has to face the disadvantages of not being a mountain for Fireblast and being a non-basic land for Price of Progress, Wasteland and other such cards. The nature of the deck keeps those cards from being major problems, and the Fireblast issue will probably only be randomly annoying rather than a serious problem. With the majority of the spells in the deck going straight to the graveyard, the deck will likely achieve threshold once it has about four or five cards in play and an empty hand around turn five. More important is the threat of having threshold. With a Barbarian Ring on the table, the opponent's life total virtually just went down by two. When the time comes, there will be enough cards for threshold. In the Standard version of the deck, things can work similarly, if the deck itself has enough of a reason to exist. Mike Turian took a pre-Odyssey version to the Top 8 of Worlds, but it's anyone's guess whether the deck makes any sense without Seal of Fire and Kris Mage. I'd say that it doesn't, but I never thought it made any sense before. That makes me the wrong person to ask.

Barbarian Ring makes sense in decks that can afford to sacrifice lands and take early damage. If the deck is tapping all its lands on a consistent basis even when it has a lot of them then the damage will be too problematic and the land won't be able to be sacrificed, assuming the Ring is considered a land. The alternative is to consider the Barbarian Ring a spell with the option to tap it for mana if the deck is short on lands. As midgame spells go, two damage is a very low power spell, but it's a way to squeeze extra lands into a deck that would otherwise choke on them, assuming threshold can be reached consistently. The best place for this would be a deck that needs its mana early on without fail but can't use that mana effectively later on. For example, in Invasion Block I tested a black-red-white deck full of two casting cost creatures, and it used Goblin Trenches to try and justify the 27 lands it needed to run to have enough colored mana to support Putrid Warrior, Goblin Legionnaire and Shivan Zombie in the same deck without having too many color problems. Later on, the a red deck would almost never need all its lands, and often the Barbarian Ring would never need to be tapped even if it was in the opening hand, or it would be tapped once - there needed to be too many lands in the deck, so often it wouldn't need them all to cast its spells.

Black's version of the Barbarian Ring is Cabal Pit, which is much worse. It can't target players, so it doesn't pose the same kind of threat as the Ring. It's still creature removal and even has a bigger impact in creature combat, but like other creature removal, it risks being useless. The assumption would probably be that it gets into a few decks where it fits in perfectly but much less often than the Ring goes into red decks. In the right situation, it could definitely be worthwhile. Centaur Garden seems like it should be on a similar power level since, it's Giant Growth to the Ring's Shock, but Giant Growth is most useful because of its ability to affect early combat. Also, getting threshold requires the deck to put cards in the graveyard, which decks full of creatures generally don't want to do. As a result, it's not in the same league. Cephalid Coliseum is a weird card, because its purpose seems to be to get draw three cards and then discard three lands. Even more than the other lands, to use it a deck would need to want to stop playing lands after it has some fixed number, and that number needs to be relatively small. How many decks like that actually expect to make it to the point where they have the cards to discard? While drawing three and then discarding three would be a great one casting-cost instant, it seems to be on the wrong card here. It's also less important that this one is immune to counters.

That leaves the weirdest of the lands, Nomad Stadium. The Stadium is up front about what it is, because both its benefit and its drawback are in life points. Early on it costs life, then later on after threshold hits and there's more than enough land the life is hopefully returned with interest. So that leaves two questions. How often will the Stadium need to be tapped, and how often will it be sacrificable in time without crippling the mana? The odd thing about the card is that any deck not expecting to tap the Stadium that much shouldn't be too concerned with life totals in the first place, but that doesn't mean that life would suddenly become a Bad ThingTM. Still, the matchups where the life points do matter are likely to be the ones where the Stadium is needed for mana the most and doesn't come online in time. I can't think of a deck that would seriously consider this card, but I can see it. If it does find its way in, it won't make much difference, so it's nothing to be concerned about.

Divine Sacrament is one of the most interesting threshold spells because it's a very respectable card before threshold is achieved. Glorious Anthem was played all the time, including in decks with only white creatures. Unless the opponent has white creatures, there's no difference. Of course what the Sacrament is really equal to there is Crusade which costs only two mana, but Crusade's cost was always primarily the card rather than the two mana, and upping the cost to three mana doesn't change that. It fell in and out of favor, finally dying when it was removed and the rebel engine became the way to give small white creatures staying power. This presents a very viable alternative, if it's what you're after. The creatures aren't anywhere near as good as the rebels were, but this gives +1/+1 to all of them early on and +2/+2 to them later, if there is a later. That's enough to make almost any creature good. The big danger is playing against decks whose plan is to remove every creature the opponent plays without using burn, or tap them down with Opposition, or something similar. This can quickly become a dead or virtually dead card. These are the same issues that always worried Crusade, which brings up the last problem. In any sort of mirror matchup, it helps the opponent's creatures too, and control decks will often use at least Meddling Mage.

Suppose after all that a deck decided to use Divine Sacrament. What are the tools a deck that takes advantage of Divine Sacrament can use to get threshold, and what other threshold cards can it take advantage of? The first thought has to be the white threshold creatures. Mystic Penitent is definitely no Mother of Runes or Ramosian Sergeant. Not tapping to attack makes a difference only against Static Orb. I doubt the deck is this desperate for one drops, as even after threshold hits it's far from amazing. What threshold does is move it up to a respectable power level. The question becomes: Why are 1-drops bad? Is it because even early on the card isn't worth such a small creature, or is it just the danger of drawing one later in the game? It's definitely a combination of both problems, but this forces the issue front and center. My general view is that anything that only does one damage a turn as its primary function, even if that one point is impossible to stop, isn't worth the card. That doesn't mean it isn't better to have a card doing one damage a turn than just sitting in hand, although it does bring the danger of putting too many creatures onto the table at once, risking mass removal. Often one drops can become a trap, where their controller will look at his other creatures and know that he has to play them to get a reasonable clock but can't play them without risking mass removal. Without the one drop, the later creature could often be a fine clock on its own instead.

Mystic Visionary is easier because its threshold effect is minor. Flying is a nice thing to have but in Constructed it isn't all that important for such a small creature, especially in this type of deck. Even if threshold was something that could be counted on relatively early, this would still be no Longbow Archer, and I think Odyssey has a better two drop as well. Patrol Hound may be a pathetic successor to such creatures as White Knight and Longbow Archer, and it may pale in comparison to a Wild Mongrel, but it still tops the Visionary and may end up making the cut sometimes. Part of the attraction is the constant threat that he could dump a few cards into the graveyard, granting threshold on the spot. It shouldn't actually happen very often in Constructed play, but especially when the graveyard has four or five cards in it or the opponent gets low on life then its one more thing that has to be played around. First strike works the same way. The threat is stronger than its execution, because no one can afford to block a Patrol Hound if they can't get around first strike, unless they have some trick they want to pull in response to the discard to try and gain card advantage.

Not quite Paladin en-Vec.
Moving up to higher casting costs, next up is Mystic Crusader. Mystic Crusader is going to be one of those cards that sees much more play than it deserves, the same way a lot of players loved Paladin en-Vec. History repeats itself with these types of cards. Three mana for two power is a raw deal, protection or no protection. When it becomes a 3/2 flyer, it does become worthwhile but not spectacular. The missing point of toughness wouldn't make much difference except that first strike is also missing, which means this can't even beat up on a Llanowar Elf without help from the beyond the grave. If the deck stays monowhite, that leaves Mystic Zealot. The problem with the Zealot is that it will be overrun by green creatures of similar power and it is defensive in nature. Four toughness goes a long way in Limited, but with large supplies of huge men available to whatever decks want them, paying this much for so little offense seems silly, as does tapping out for such a creature. A 3/5 flyer for four mana sounds impressive but doesn't really do all that much.

There are also green threshold creatures worth thinking about, and I'll look at that, the most efficient ways to get threshold quickly and what the deck needs in part two.

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