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A Different Brand of Flexible

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The letter T!his past summer I was working on a Standard Mystical Teachings deck with my Michigan-based friends Mark Herberholz and Pat Chapin. Pat initially thought about Teachings, I told him it was awful, I worked on it behind his back, and I presented Mark with “my” deck (not awful). Par for the course in deck design circles!

All of us are very opinionated in general, but a deck like Teachings almost falls under “special case” at the onset. You can change one card in a deck full of tutors and change a common matchup by 25%, easily. Collectively, we disagreed about more than one thing, but for the purposes of this article, there was only one spell that mattered.

Slaughter Pact The card in question was Slaughter Pact. Everyone agreed that Slaughter Pact was the right card main deck. Especially if you are only going to play one copy, Slaughter Pact is a good choice for pinpoint creature removal. You can find the one copy with Mystical Teachings; you can find it with Tolaria West. The difference of opinion was that Mark wanted to play Slaughter Pact in the sideboard; I had four copies of Terror in my sideboard. In my opinion, while Slaughter Pact is the right choice from all kinds of angles main in a deck (with multiple appropriate ways to find a singleton), Terror just seemed like a better card. If you are going to play multiples (or all four like I was suggesting), especially sideboarded, you want the most consistent option.

Sideboarded games are different from first games. Your goals in card selection are more focused, and your tools have to be more efficient. For example, I was preparing for a Pro Tour with Adrian Sullivan a few years ago, and he wanted to use Rapid Decay in the sideboard. We almost made it to the Pro Tour before I realized that we didn't want Rapid Decay... We wanted Ebony Charm. We were only going to be siding in Rapid Decay when we needed to stop a graveyard combo (and cycling in and of itself is not desirable in a sideboard card)... Why wouldn't we want the 50% cheaper option for the same effect? (On a side note, I actually used the "one point Drain Life" trick against Trix at that Pro Tour and got applause from a sideline reporting Scott Johns when I gave my 6/6 fear to charge past a Mogg Fanatic to lock in Day Two.) Ebony Charm was a tighter pick for the same slot.

Regardless of what the cards say in the top right, Terror is cheaper than Slaughter Pact. Terror costs two; Slaughter Pactclaims to cost nothing. It actually costs three. Terror can be played (and paid for) whenever you want to play it; Slaughter Pact can be played just about whenever you want... But its 50% heftier price tag demands remittance at exactly a particular point during the next turn; it is in that sense less flexible. Also... even Pro Tour Top 8 competitors (and even one big check recipient!) have shown themselves vulnerable to losing a game due to Pact forgetfulness... You can't really gloss over a downside that big.

I was ultimately unable to sway Mark to my way of thinking and he actually ended up playing a blue-red-white Momentary Blink deck, finishing unremarkably; Pat rewrote his Teachings with Jon Finkel himself in between landing on my couch in New York and the US National Championships... He ultimately finished 6-1 in Standard playing Slaughter Pact main and a mix of Pacts and Terrors in his sideboard (it is Teachings, after all!).

Someone recently suggested to me that Slaughter Pact will grow into the role of best card in Standard because it can kill Tarmogoyf. Even a novice player should be able to see the flaws in this reasoning. Slaughter Pact is great, but a card can't really be the best when the headline in its “pros” column is that it is a one-for-one 50% more expensive than whatever card it is removing (in this case a card that can actually win the game... and often does). I don't think Slaughter Pact will even graduate to commonly played four-of in Standard main decks; when you are playing it in bulk, it's probably worse than Terror. It's almost certainly worse, when looked at from that angle, than today's preview card.

Click here.

Haven't we seen cards like this before?

What makes this so great?

Magic is a game of options. The best players distinguish themselves by making tight plays... but ultimately keeping their options open as long as they can. Even when the game looks like it will devolve into a slaughter of chump-blocking, these best players figure out when to start sacrificing their minions, maybe getting a little racing done in the meantime, while weaker players start throwing their creatures away several turns too early, or just a turn too late, to win.

Shriekmaw is a card that plays by a different brand of options. Being a creature, it very clearly isn't an instant. You can't find it with Mystical Teachings, certainly not Tolaria West. You can play it only at very specific points in the game, not on your attack or the opponent's turn. Yet... My guess? Shriekmaw will consistently show up as a four-of, main deck, in Block and likely Standard. Why? What makes this card so much better than Nekrataal, which gets almost no play?

When Nekrataal first came out, it was heralded as one of the best creatures in the set, a set that also featured River Boa, Man-o'-War, and Uktabi Orangutan. Nekrataal made it to the finals of PT–Paris, and saw a lot of play in Standard and even Extended, in a variety of decks including black beatdown, Black Ice, and even Necropotence. In recent years, Nekrataal has become much less popular. The (relatively) recently dubbed Human Assassin gets a little bullet play, usually when paired with green, but nothing compared to his automatic four-of inclusion in aggressive decks in the mid-to-late 1990s. Why should Shriekmaw fare any better? This one costs five, not a mere four.

Shriekmaw isn't an instant. You can't find it with Mystical Teachings or play it at the end of your turn (unless you have Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir in play, of course). However you can play this card for two. That point alone makes is more attractive than Nekrataal. Nekrataal didn't change... Everything around it did. Nekrataal became too good for its own good, and creature decks shifted to the point where four mana for even this impressive effect was no longer justified. Erhnam Djinns disappeared, and were replaced by Jackal Pups and Mogg Fanatics. Black beatdown decks went to Fallen Askari (which can beat up a first striking Nekrataal) or Dauthi Slayer (which never gets in a fight at all). Necropotence players realized that they didn't need to pay four mana to kill a creature and gain card advantage; they just got better at finding Necropotence and used their mana more effectively with cards like Firestorm, leaning on Necropotence alone for extra oomph. At four mana, Nekrataal had gone from too good to too slow.

For the time being, let's forget about five mana as a baseline; at two mana, Shriekmaw is functionally to Terror what Cruel Edict is to Diabolic Edict. Is Cruel Edict as good as Diabolic Edict? Obviously not... But it still buried an untold stack of Paladin en-Vec s during its term in Standard.

Ironically, we can't say that Shriekmaw is even worse than Terror. This is a creature. You can stop it with a Remove Soul, but it is invulnerable to Flash Counter. You might not be able to find it with Tolaria West, but Commune With Nature is a different story. The cool thing? Anything that works well with creatures—187 creatures in particular—is twice as good with this guy. He is “fairly” costed at five... but what about getting full value at two mana? That's like cheating! To wit, how much do you plan to lay out to ruin some poor Tarmogoyf‘s day with Momentary Blink? Seven? Seven over two turns?

Try four.

That's right! As detailed in a recent Ask Wizards, you evoke out Shriekmaw for two, put “it's sacrificed when it comes into play” on the stack, and flip over Momentary Blink. Pow. Pow pow! You nuke two opposing creatures... and... (you'll love this) when your Shriekmaw comes back into play, the game will forget that it was supposed to die evoke-style. You keep your 3/2 fear, primed for next's turn's Blink flashback... probably after you get in for an unblockable 3 points.

Of course the best thing about this card being a creature is that it's a creature. Not only is it a creature, but Shriekmaw is a pretty respectable one. Sure, you might not play this card minus the flexibility that comes with its evoke option; certainly most of the incentive comes from its comes into play ability... but a 3/2 with evasion will actually matter in a lot of games. Decks heavy on control elements are often looking for some way to win... Why not with the Terrors they were going to play anyway? Sure, you'll probably play the first two copies for two, but after a couple of attrition fights, there will probably not be any reason not to pay full retail and start clocking.

In case you hadn't noticed already, Lorwyn is going to be a creature block. The way things are threatening to go, efficient creature elimination and a built-in method for winning attrition wars are going to be very attractive in Standard... And there is one creature in particular that is going to need swatting, especially for a deck with controlling aspirations: Gaddock Teeg. The Kithkin Advisor promises to be one of the most format-warping two drops in the history of tournament play. You can't Wrath (of God) him, you can't Damn(ation) him, and you can't even go and find your spot removal (which itself might be Tendrils of Corruption)... You can however drop a Shriekmaw right on his bulbous noggin. I was scrambling for a while, trying to figure out if you could evoke away Gaddock Teeg even given Shriekmaw's retail price of five mana... but then I realized it doesn't matter, the new kid doesn't stop expensive creature spells, no way, no how, not on two, five, or twenty-five.

It probably bears repeating that even if a sorcery speed Shriekmaw is less technically options-rich than an instant speed Terror, that doesn't mean that correct play necessarily equates with utilizing every ounce of potential trickiness. While playing your removal at the end of the opponent's turn is, as a class, the best way to preserve your mana (unless you are playing Snuff Out), the tension that comes up in real games tends to be between playing removal on your own turn... or sometime during before damage goes on the stack during the opposing combat. As we've seen in previous articles, preserving your mana and keeping your options open doesn't necessarily match up with the best play at any given point. Anything from Giant Growth to Stonewood Invocation can make removing creatures on the opponent's turn difficult or dangerous. When you point your removal on your own turn, bad things might still happen, but at least you aren't taking another 5 damage on top of whatever the creature was going to do anyway for your troubles.

Bonus Tactical Summary

Here is a short summary of when you might play creature removal, and what your intention might be in playing it at that point...

Opponent's End of Turn: You had the luxury of having your resources open, or you were willing to take a hit in order to set up a Time Walk. Had you played your removal spell pre-combat damage, you might have saved some damage in the short run, but you feared the opponent would replace his creature. Generally this is the best time to use removal (if you can afford to wait) because your removal is likely to resolve and you should have more options the next turn... End of turn is particularly good when you are playing one-for-one removal and the opponent is playing around sweep cards. Against responses or blue players, this point in the game is delicious especially when you don't care if your spell resolves successfully. Often you will bait on end of turn in order to get mana tapped for your turn so you can resolve your real spell.

Your Upkeep: Something very game-specific is up. Perhaps the opponent has a source of free mana that will expire, or you do, or you want to get around a Pact. This is generally a strange time to play removal because you haven't seen your next card yet, and you might have something better to do with your resources, especially main.

Your Draw: Very similar to your upkeep, but you have another card. Generally a strange time to be using removal.

Your first Main: You have slow removal and you want to get your creatures in. Note that your spells are most likely to resolve on your turn, especially during the first main, because the opponent might be worried about your follow-up plays.

Your combat: Usually you want to see how the opponent will line up his forces, possibly to tip his hand. You can get a two for one on removal during combat if he runs a gang block (you kill one, your creature runs over the other), but a lot of the same reasons you might not want to run removal during the opponent's combat applies here, too. You have fewer options. There are a lot of moving parts. You didn't anticipate his actual block. Often you will have committed resources already. This one gets me a lot: You intended to run your removal pre-combat... but forgot for some reason. Luckily you still have the option during attacks pre-blocks; again, more things can go wrong. If he has a Giant Growth (or whatever the appropriate response is) you don't kill the creature and he might eat your attacker.

Your second Main: This is another good time to use removal that you actually want to resolve. You will usually find yourself using it at this point if you wanted to see what the opponent was going to do, say you were willing to trade creatures and he declined... but you still want his creature dead. If you hadn't used cards or mana pre-combat, you should preserve a lot of flexibility with second main, but able to leverage more information. Why didn't he trade? Wasn't that a good trade for him? Maybe he doesn't have another creature. Think about it. Of course this is the classic time to use a sweep card. You get in with whatever you can, clean up the rest, and possibly have enough mana left for a follow-up creature.

Your End of Turn: This is almost strictly worse than the opponent's upkeep, unless he commits a lot of mana (say he plays Whispers of the Muse with buyback, tapping out). In that kind of a situation you can remove in response with an almost clear certainty that your spell will resolve.

Opponent's Upkeep: This is the universal signal for “I don't care, but you probably do” when fighting a blue mage. The goal is to get his mana tapped before he can hit his main. You probably don't want to run this against decks with Giant Growth-type effects, unless you are anticipating a combat that you can weather or win outright.

Opponent's Draw: Same as opponent's upkeep, except you want him to have another option for some reason. You really don't care but you think he does, and you really want to set him up for something more important on your turn.

Opponent's Main: Very similar to opponent's upkeep or draw, but you want to do something pre-combat specifically because he has the opportunity to take some sort of serious action. Say he has a haste creature that he taps for; suddenly you have more options whereas he has committed mana and cards.

Opponent's Combat: This is when most medium skilled players like to use their removal. They are very romantic. They get both the maximum upside and the maximum downside during combat. Yes, the opponent commits. Yes, you get a lot of information because of that and can structure your blocks and removal accordingly; the problem is that if something goes wrong, it will often go very wrong, with Stonewood Invocation being the most wrong it will probably go. There is a big difference between removing creatures pre- or post-blocking, of course. Eric Kesselman consistently taught the Neutral Ground novices to make sure they got their blocks in first (assuming they wanted to stop an attacker) so that if the opponent had a trick, at least the blocks would usually stand.

Opponent's Second Main: Almost strictly worse than the opponent's End of Turn in terms of actual flexibility and actual desire to remove a creature. Usually you will only do this because you got in a desirable combat and you want the opponent to commit / overcommit. Unlike End of Turn, removing at this point gives him the opportunity to play more spells and tap more mana.

End Bonus Tactical Summary

I don't usually make a lot of Limited recommendations in this column, but the Prerelease is the day after tomorrow. I suggest you draft Shriekmaw highly (first pick!) and play it if you get it in your Sealed deck. Trust me, ugly as it may look, this one should be a belle in Constructed. Good luck and have fun this weekend! Lorwyn looks really different... I think deck design is going to be a real challenge this year.


Go to your local store for Lorwyn Release Events October 12-14 for lots of fun activities and to play with the Lorwyn set as soon as it goes on sale.

Get a sneak peek at a Lorwyn Prerelease on September 29-30.

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