I don't have a lot of set-in-stone personal rules, but never registering Evolving Wilds in a less-than-four-color deck is one of them. Tapped basics are just not where I want to be. If the mana doesn't work without Evolving Wilds, the deck isn't good enough. With this restriction firmly in place, it only took four sheets of mathematical scribbling and a two-hour time investment for me to arrive at a Shadows over Innistrad Bant Company manabase that I thought had a chance of being good enough.
This was my starting point, the first deck I played in testing. Bant Company offered a unique opportunity: the chance to test a new mana base with the spells controlled for. I mean controlled in the experimental sense; because the spell base is virtually identical to that of a successful deck in the previous format, any new problems with the deck can be reasonably attributed to the mana base. Since learning the mana in a new format is so important, I was eager to jump on this opportunity. So I sat down to play a brand-new exciting format for the first time without any exciting new cards, just some boring lands. Yet another sacrifice in the name of Science.
My opponent for that first session was on the hyper-aggressive white human deck. I didn't plan it this way, but I couldn't have asked for a more perfect adversary for stress-testing my mana base. Against this deck, any stumble would spell certain doom. I'm happy to report that my lands functioned perfectly — this experiment was a victory. The play patterns of Shadow lands were unfamiliar at first, but learning to hold onto the appropriate basics for as long as possible soon became second nature. I was surprised by this result, as I had been thinking that three-color decks would be unwieldy in the new world. This is one case where I'm happy to be wrong.
Before moving on, an aside on the human deck: After game one of our series, an onlooker made a comment that this seemed to be a bad match-up for the humans. I responded by saying that if this wasn't a bad matchup for the human deck and Bant Company was a real contender in the format, then the human deck was just insane. If the white aggro deck can beat the green-based efficient creature board clog deck, then the white aggro deck's power level is absurd. After making this statement, I promptly got destroyed in the next couple of games. I ended up ahead after the series but the white deck packs a real punch and double Thalia's Lieutenant draws are all but unbeatable.
Part of testing a brand-new format is to try and make decks around all of the obviously powerful cards and mechanics from the new set. Even if the decks themselves don't ultimately pan out, they give you an opportunity to see how the mechanics and cards play, which will aid you in constructing new decks in the future. For Shadows over Innistrad, I wanted to see how the madness mechanic would play outside of an aggressive shell. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy feels perfect for the madness mechanic, but does not fit well in a hyper-aggressive strategy. Nahiri, the Harbinger also feels custom-made for this kind of deck; and thus my colors were determined: Jeskai. Wouldn't be the first time.
We sat down to take the new Jeskai Madness deck for a spin against Bant Company. Somehow I always ended up piloting Bant, as every one I was testing with seemed intoxicated by the Jeskai deck. Magic players can be such suckers for decks that look even the smallest bit like a control deck.
The decks were pretty even overall, which was pretty impressive for the Jeskai deck, which I kind of thought was a pile. The most poignant memory I have of that series is a game where my opponent played Nahiri, the Harbinger on turn four. For every turn after that I would only attack Nahiri, the Harbinger, never devoting resources away from trying to get Nahiri, the Harbinger off the table. I lost that game despite a perfectly functional draw, and I lost it with that Nahiri, the Harbinger still on the table.
Nahiri, the Harbinger is yet another card from Shadows over Innistrad that I didn't like upon my first reading. I thought she was the worst Planeswalker in the set, but now I think she's the best. When we evaluate Planeswalkers we look at the abilities to try and get an idea of what the card can do for us in game. The numbers are more of an afterthought, a "and four starting loyalty" tacked on at the end of a card review. With Nahiri, the Harbinger the power is in the numbers. Imagine a typical turn four board state: you're slightly behind, with no creatures vs your opponent's single three-power creature. Nahiri, the Harbinger can be your turn-four play here and will be at virtually no risk of dying. In fact, she will probably still have five loyalty at the end of your turn five. That's incredible. Nahiri, the Harbinger is guaranteed to get two activations on any board, and makes a strong case for being the most likely Planeswalker in the game to get three activations in (which, by the way, can be her ultimate) before dying. She protects herself with math, not tokens. That's power.
Nahiri, the Harbinger's Staying Power synergizes with her role as a madness enabler. It's hard to have mana leftover for a madness cost on the turn you play Nahiri, the Harbinger. But on the next turn, all your mana will be free. Boom, Avacyn's Judgment for four. Her ultimate may not be overly powerful, but she survives to have the option an absurd percentage of the time. If you have stayed away from Nahiri, the Harbinger, give her a shot. I think you'll be surprised.
It's turn nine and I only have four lands in play, none of which produce the green mana my Naya deck really needs. Oh, and I'm staring down two World Breakers that just came crashing into my Nahiri, the Harbinger for a chump block and five loyalty. Things aren't great, to say the least.
I untap and draw the only card that can deal with my opponent's board state: Declaration in Stone. I'm visibly excited; I immediately go to cast this lucky top deck. Halfway through the motion, however, I suddenly pause and enter the tank.
Declaration in Stone has my absolute favorite line of text on a Magic Card: "and all other creatures its controller controls with the same name." In fact, Bile Blight is the reason I play Magic today. Declaration in Stone has this, but it also has some of my least favorite text: "That player investigates." Reading Declaration in Stone for the first time was this terrible emotional rollercoaster, where the beginning had me excited out of my mind and the end had me disappointed beyond belief. I wrote the card off as unplayable, as I'm not in the business of handing out cards to opponents (business cards excepted). But lately, others I respect have been saying the card is great. So I've been trying it out, open to the possibility of being wrong.
So here's the deal: I knew I couldn't beat an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. I wasn't sure I could beat the World Breakers, but it was certainly possible. One was even already accounted for via Nahiri, the Harbinger's minus ability. So then, did I really want to let my opponent draw two cards in exchange for making my immediate future a bit brighter? If the game truly was going to come down to Ulamog the Ceaseless Hunger, casting the Declaration in Stone better increase my clock by two turns or I'd actually be giving my opponent additional outs to find an Ulamog the Ceaseless Hunger. This seemed like such an ideal use of my Declaration in Stone, hitting two of my opponent's seven drops, and yet the decision was murky. Eventually, I decided to cast the Declaration in Stone. Two turns later, my opponent cast an Ulamog the Ceaseless Hunger. I lost that game.
I'm unlikely to play Declaration in Stone on opening weekend. Finding out that I don't even always want to cast it in dream scenarios has sent me firmly back to the 'only in aggressive decks' camp. But here's what gives me pause: Declaration in Stone should be underperforming right now. Right now we are still in the stone age of this format — no list is tuned. In untuned decks, it's much easier to find two mana to crack a clue with, because much of tuning a deck is optimizing the curve and maximizing mana efficiency. So the tempo loss of the clues should be less of a problem right now, meaning Declaration in Stone should be even worse right now than it would be later in the format. And the buzz is still that Declaration in Stone is great. Guess I won't be declaring my opinion in stone just yet.
Thanks for reading,