Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Grim Tidings #15 - Digging Deeper in Highlander 5C

(Contributed by John Kozlowski)

It’s hard to believe that playing a 300 card 5-Color highlander deck can get boring sometimes. I’ve been playing my current incarnation of “First Reminder” now for about a year and a half. I’ve had a few side projects to fool around with, but the main deck endures. When you have 300 of the best cards ever printed at your disposal, what more could you ever need?

Let me point out, every game is still different, but in my unique play group where everyone seems to play their own concoction of the best 300 card highlander deck, patterns develop. What has happened is that the card pool has become established, and a result, stagnant. With six excellent casual-competitive minds working against each other week in, week out, we all seem to come to the same conclusions.

Kokusho is good. Body Double is good. Akroma is good. Even brand new cards like Rite of Replication become a 5C staple, literally overnight. The highlander nature of the big deck dilutes the repetition of bombs like these, but given enough games, card draw, and tutoring, it seems the same cards always appear in most every game. Sure everyone has their own pet cards, but overall, the best of the best is generally already known.

Almost Essentials
This effect isn’t unique to my North Carolina play group either. The same problems occurred in Michigan when I played in Ypsilanti. During that time I became familiar with “The Essentials” a famous H5C deck list is regularly maintained and updated to only include the best of the best cards. Unfortunately, the same repetition happened there too, as it doesn’t take long to figure out the neat tricks to make a big deck work. (Technically, the concept of First Reminder is a copy-cat of The Essentials, because it was so fun to play with and against.)

My good friend Aaron Balogh mitigated the problem in Michigan with a daring yet very simple solution: Maintain a second highlander list. Back then it was a little easier, as the deck size was still only 250 cards. Aaron only needed to identify 500 totals card cards that were optimal and synergistic together. The idea took hold, and “The Almost Essentials” was assembled for casual greatness.

Aaron was extremely generous and frequently loaned his decks out to whoever might be playing that night and wanted to give 5-Color a try. I think he enjoyed both versions of Essentials equally well, so it didn’t really matter which one he piloted. In fact, I think on top of these two decks, he had a third or a fourth that he could rotate between to keep it even livelier. What great times those were.

Fast forward four or five years to late 2008, right before the release of Shards of Alara. In the spirit of “Almost Essentials”, I attempt to create a second deck list to complement my “First Reminder”. Again, I copy the techniques I learned in Michigan, and build another unique highlander deck. The experiment fails, as I become distracted with an Enchantress subtheme, and convert the deck into my Banty-Enchanty deck list for almost the next year.

Banty-Enchanty became degenerate over time, as the exalted Bant aspect was replaced with a hardcore enchantress combo when the 5-Color BDFL unbanned Wild Research, Replenish and Survival of the Fittest. Talk about newfound consistency! Wow! And I thought 5C was supposed to be a casual format!

Predictably, I grew tired quickly and pushed it off to the side for a new idea.

Second Second Reminder
It was time to start digging deeper to find something more interesting to do with my Magic hobby. The Zendikar spoilers had begun right when all of this transpired, so my creative juices for new deck ideas were really flowing. There are lots of worthy ZEN cards that should be examined, plus literally thousands of other decent older cards that were long forgotten in my collection binders. The long search for the next 300 had begun.

This task in no way is complete, but I now have a deck put together (finally) and it seems to work. So far I’m having a lot of fun playing on it, and I’m learning more each time I play it. Perhaps in a few weeks when I’m more comfortable with it, I’ll post the entire list for your enjoyment, but for now, I’ll just highlight a few hidden treasures that I’ve become particularly enamored with in the past few weeks. Maybe these will give you new ideas to enhance your 5C or EDH games in the future:

I originally selected 8 ½ primarily as an alternate to Mother of Runes. But after playtesting, I’m seriously wondering if 8 ½ will outright replace ‘Mommy’ in First Reminder. Although it’s far more mana intensive than its predecessor, 8 ½ creates lots of headaches for your opponent. Because it can turn any permanent (or spell) white, you now have amazing versatility to circumvent a variety of difficult obstacles such as Maze of Ith and Tawnos’s Coffin (as well as common Lightning Bolts or Swords to Plowshares). Plus it doesn’t tap 8 ½, so you can use it multiple times in the same turn. I believe 8 ½ is on par with Glory, and on the verge of 5C greatness.

Sphinx of Jwar Isle
Simic Sky Swallower has always been highly regarded. Its enormous 6/6 body, complemented with flying and shroud make it nigh impossible to deal with outside of Wrath of God. Only its converted mana cost of 7 held it back from regular use in First Reminder. With the Sphinx of Jwar Isle though, we have Sky Swallower v2.0. It’s cheaper, has the same key abilities (less trample) with only a slightly smaller body.

Fleshbag Marauder
Through EDH, I’ve learned that Fleshbag Marauder is an excellent alternative to Nekrataal. Most often, there are only one or two creatures in play from each play anyways, so you’re likely to get what you’re trying to kill. What’s nice about it is that it doesn’t target, and it’s a sacrifice effect, (so there’s no coming back!) It’s proportionally stronger in multiplayer games where you get multiple creatures for a meager 2B.

Soltari Guerrillas
I’ve always been aware of Soltari Guerrillas, but for some reason it never made the cut. That may change though, as the past few times I’ve cast it, it has really worked out, far into my favor. Its shadow ability essentially makes it unblockable amongst the creature diversity of all of the legal expansions, so when you need it to damage your opponent its there for you. Its redirection ability puts it over the top, being able to generate (at the minimum) a free lightning bolt to pick off troublesome creatures that might be annoying you. If you haven’t been exposed to Soltari Guerrillas, I think you are really missing out on a true hidden treasure.

Sylvok Explorer
Akin to Birds of Paradise, or Utopia Tree, or Gemhide Sliver, Sylvok Explorer is next in line of green mana fixers that produce any color. (Remember, you’re opponent is playing 5C too.) Originally printed in Fifth Dawn, once you realize that this card is equivalent to Fellwar Stone on legs, you find it’s a pretty decent for a common.

Citanul Flute
According to Aaron Balogh, this card used to be an Essential, but it was demoted because of the heavy mana investment you need each turn to activate it. That may be true if you are repeatedly tutoring out 6 cmc beaters each turn, but if you reserve the Flute for cheap utility creatures like Ukatabi Orangutan or Goblin Ruinmaster, you’ll find that you are not completely tapping out to use its effect. Save it for your opponent’s EOT so you can pin point exactly what you need when you need it.

Winding Canyons
The only thing that is not unique between the two decks is 4x Grim Reminders, and the core manabase. I cheated and duplicated the 40-card backbone of the land-base, comprised of dual lands, Ravnica lands, Hybrid lands, and Fetches (This technique was also stolen from Almost Essentials – after all when you’re playing for fun, who really wants to be mana screwed?) That still left me with about 70 new lands to choose from to round it out.

My final spotlight is an obscure land from Weatherlight: Winding Canyons. It’s relatively insignificant, but does allow defensive combat surprises when you flash in a blocker or 187 creature when you need it. Other added benefits of this unique land is that it doesn’t enter the battlefield tapped, an anomaly in today’s modern land design.

The next part of this article will be posting the Second Reminder decklist. At least it may give you some ideas for other alternate cards to use in your primary 5C or EDH deck, or inspire your second deck as well. Regardless, I'll save my broad conclusions for hen. Adios!

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