ne of the most engaging things you can do as a Magic-al metagame analyst is to look over the various takes at mid-range decks and how they finished right after a big event. Any metagaming—the process of choosing a deck or tuning up specific cards based on your expectation of how the rest of the room might look—implies some kind of an attempt to figure out what other people are playing, and how good you are at that can have a profound impact on your results. The card selection in mid-range decks after-the-fact gives you an unparalleled window into the minds of the tournament participants.
You can look at different builds of The Rock and contrast the heavy discard disruption and Eternal Witness style of one with the splash of a third color for—I spit you not—Flametongue Kavu(!) in another, with a wholly different focus (or should we say, target). Between two reasonably high-finishing (and core-similar) decks, it seems like one player can be trying to stretch time in order to avoid getting killed by a busted combo, whereas the red splasher—playing, and even finishing highly, in the same tournament—wants to win a war of creature attrition. It's almost like they're playing in different environments. A Red Deck can hedge its selection with the flexibility of its burn (good against every face in the room, not "just" commonly played creatures), but the player who fills a deck with Smother and creatures with comes-into-play effects has to make a real decision and commitment. As does the anti-combo.
The selection and positioning of the white two drop—especially in formats with lots of them—is an even more intriguing (and possibly more skill-testing) decision. White—via storied and still "good enough" Alpha two-drop White Knight—has led the league in quality two drops since Magic's very first set. Over the course of many years, white has added everything from White Knight variations—like Hand of Honor and Silver Knight—to a whole new cadre of super-specialists: Samurai of the Pale Curtain against graveyard triggers, Ethersworn Canonist against cascade and storm decks, Leonin Skyhunter and Knight of Meadowgrain as racer variants... and even Gaddock Teeg. All different kinds of functionality for more or less the same mana.
What makes the selection of these kinds of creatures so skill testing? A Hand of Honor is very hard to block for a Vampires deck, trades nicely with a Watchwolf... but is a bit of a brick when you are fighting a Big Red deck. Gaddock Teeg is devastating for decks trying to beat you with Wrath of God, Cryptic Command, or Repeal... but is just an awkward Balduvian Bears that might get extra copies stuck in your hand when you are fighting other creature decks. There is a balance—and potentially huge reward—to getting that pick right.
And by no means should the white two drop's efficacy be confined to White Weenie only. It was said that during Onslaught block the only way Astral Slide was getting past a Patriarch's Bidding was by racing with Stoic Champion. Depending on splashes, white two drops have won PTQs for Red Deck Wins (Boros Guildmage), destroyed key artifacts (Qasali Pridemage), destroyed all the artifacts (Kataki, War's Wage), or carried whole Pro Tour Top 8s across their backs (Selesnya Guildmage).
Legends tell the tale of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa siding in two copies of Knight of Meadowgrain against other five-color control decks—which at that point would probably have no Firespouts, let alone point-removal supplementation. If he were super lucky, Guillaume could hit one on turn two to begin a race of impossible margins (presumably against an opponent with no remaining removal). Even if he weren't lucky, Knight of Meadowgrain could hold off any number of Kitchen Finks (presumably the only reasonable way the opponent had to manage the battlefield) and even create a kind of infinite-versus-four-lifegain sub-field of battle.
Dark Ascension gives white yet another potentially powerful tool and another opportunity to make a skillful decision in the area of two drops (albeit not the kind of card Guillaume would have been proud to side in during the Toast-on-Toast five-color mirror):
See where I was coming from with that "choices, decisions, and appropriateness" angle?
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben seems just so specialized.
Like many pivotal two drops (many of which were mentioned in this here article so far, even!), Thalia, Guardian of Thraben has first strike. That helps to counterbalance its curiously low toughness. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben can hold off a 3/2 with the best Knight of Meadowgrain (even if it isn't nearly as appropriate a drop in the kind of a deck Guillaume favored), and trade cleanly with the best of the Longbow Archer set... but unlike most of the efficient two drops discussed so far, Thalia gets picked off by an unassisted Prodigal Sorcerer.
That, though, can give us a potentially important clue to Thalia's power level and relevance. Just as we have a model for the , 2/2, first strike and another ability creature (White Knight, Silver Knight, Longbow Archer, Knight of Meadowgrain, etc., ad infinitum), we have another model for the , 2/1, legendary specialist:
Put simply, where appropriately played, the above two drop could win the game on the second turn. Kataki was so good, proto-Dredge decks could side it in (and a bunch of Riftstone Portals) and mulligan aggressively, with the outlook of "basically" winning on the second turn and "actually" winning a real Dredge game later (if necessary). Against the hated Affinity, Kataki could tie up all the opponent's lands (artifact lands would usually have to pay for themselves), paralyzing the opponent's ability to take any actions.
Where can Thalia, Guardian of Thraben do the same?
Thalia's main line of text (besides the first strike nod that Kataki lacks) is a kind of Sphere of Resistance ability, almost a strict upgrade to Thorn of Amethyst for a white creature (same cost, basically, where you get a 2/1 first striker on top of the Thorn of Amethyst functionality). Thorn of Amethyst (and for that matter Sphere of Resistance) have been popular anti-combo sideboard cards in various formats.
These kinds of cards shine specifically against repeated action or Dark Ritual-type combo decks like High Tide or various Storm builds. An example of those is the currently popular Blue-Red Storm deck in Modern, which plays tons and tons of cheap Gitaxian Probes into Manamorphose and Seething Song, building repeatedly on itself until exploding into a lethal Empty the Warrens or Grapeshot. Desperate Ritual looks a great deal more "desperate" when you are no longer using it to actually net mana.
These kinds of combo decks gain a lot of their value by being extremely quick. They can set up and get the ball rolling with blue cantrips on the first couple of turns; when the cards line up right, you can sometimes see a Legacy version actually win the game on the very first turn!
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben | Art by Jana Schirmer & Johannes Voss
The appropriateness of a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is that it is fast—you can play it, especially when going first, before you've already lost to a Storm combo deck. And unlike a super-specialized sideboard card like Thorn of Amethyst, you are actually putting the opponent on a clock at the same time. One of the stresses that beatdown players—any players, really—can have when trying to execute against fast or broken combo decks is the question of whether to further their own plans or hang back to react to whatever the opponent's plan is (especially early)...
You have only one source of black mana available: Do you Duress the Replenish deck or leave open mana for your Ebony Charm?
Or (more appropriately here) as a White Weenie deck, do you play your two drop to put the opponent on the clock or play your Thorn of Amethyst? It isn't very likely your opponent will kill you next turn—not with Thorn of Amethyst in play—but by doing something other than moving your own plan forward, you are giving your opponent a turn by not really taking one yourself. That said, if you play your bear, you are going to end up kicking yourself if your opponent does, in fact, kill you next turn!
The worst is when you play your Thorn of Amethyst and your opponent answers it, then kills you anyway (sometimes using the free turn you gave away).
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben not only eases the stress of the potential combo conundrum and puts you in a "no decision required" zone, but does everything at the same time, increasing your efficiency. All-in-all, there is a great likelihood for this card to find a home in formats looking to fight combo decks like Modern Blue-Red Storm or Legacy ANT.
Which brings us back to that "basic" two drop ability of first strike.
Despite being built on the same model in terms of cost and size as Kataki, War's Wage, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben has those two additional little words going for it. Believe it or not, there was a time when a 2/1 first strike creature for two mana was not just good enough to play, but good enough to make a Constructed Pro Tour Top 8!
Preston Poulter's Green-White
Standard – Pro Tour New York (1996)
That was with no anti-Affinity and no anti-Storm (not that there was any kind of affinity or storm in those days). Being just a 2/1 first striker was just a good-enough combat creature. I think that is why the wise people in R&D gave Thalia that little bit of extra oomph. They knew players were fine running Thorn of Amethyst. Heck, I myself once won a PTQ playing main-deck Sphere of Resistance—in a deck also playing Dark Ritual! Players are fine paying two mana for that kind of an effect, primarily out of the sideboard, but main deck only in strange circumstances (like a high expectation of running into High Tide every round).
By giving Thalia first strike, R&D attempted, I think, to create a bridge, and maybe send a little bit of a message: You might want to try this main deck.
Fifth Thorn? Sure. Better than Thorn out of the sideboard for a white deck, definitely.
Can Thalia all of a sudden out-class, say, a Llanowar Elves in a main-deck game? Block a Geist of Saint Traft with prejudice?
Now we have a conversation!
Projected impact? For any format with the right kind of combo opponents, this card's impact might be significant.
Main deck? Widely played or conventional formats? Even Standard?
Next Week: "Everything but the..." :)