Tuesday, July 24, 2012

From the Ground Up: Talrand's Spells

On my favorite forum board the other day, there was a post about the all-permanent deck.  My Adun deck is nearly there, but someone else brought up the all-spell deck and I found this to be an intriguing idea.  If I've done one end of the spectrum, why not the other?

This is the process I usually go through when I'm building a deck.  I get an idea, find some cards I like, then build a first draft, which is usually far too big. I cut it down, but I keep the stack of things I cut handy, because it takes me quite a few plays to finalize a list.

We have choices of a build-around general, with 40-odd lands and 60-odd non-creature, non-artifact spells.

Riku of Two Reflections
Pros - Three colors, offering ramp spells, kill spells, control spells, and copying those spells.  Pretty sweet!
Cons - Three colors means a more difficult mana base, it costs an extra RU to copy said spells, and Riku is a general that gets you killed.

Dralnu, Lich Lord
Pros - Two colors of card draw and deadly spells, and a built-in way to re-use those spells for maximum value.
Cons - A tap ability without any way to give him haste means he spends a turn sitting around doing nothing before I get value.  Dralnu's damage drawback (yay alliteration!) means that any random pinger or Lightning Bolt effect will get my lands killed (since I have no other permanents).

Talrand, Sky Summoner
Pros - Only one color, so an easy manabase.  The bonus 2/2 is free, no mana required.  Can be used right away, depending on open mana.
Cons - Only one color, so everything has to be blue.  Challenge Accepted!

I think that Talrand will be more fun to build around, too.  Riku is tempting, but he's far too intimidating to other players, so he will get killed often. (I had a Riku deck and that's what happens!)  Talrand, meanwhile, is just going to build up a stack of 2/2 flyers and go after anyone and everyone.

I think the deck will benefit from a few more counterspells than usual, a sprinkling of stealing, and maximum value from cantrips (spells that have 'draw a card' in the text).  Some things to note:

Copying a spell doesn't give you Drakes, unless you're casting the copies (e.g. Spelltwine).  Rebound works well, as does Flashback, but Buyback is the real prizewinner.  The buyback spells allow you to churn out Drake tokens.  You're not on the pace of a green mage with Sprout Swarm, but you can still do some work, as we will see.

I sat down in Gatherer and looked--briefly--at every blue instant or sorcery, and came up with an initial deck of 150 cards, plus Talrand.  Let's look at the lands first.  39 of them, including Maze of Ith, seems right to me.  There's a good amount of card draw in this deck, so I'm not too worried about the number of lands, even without mana acceleration.

25 Island
Mikokoro, Center of the Sea - Card draw is good.  You have flexibility on when to use this, at a very low cost, so if you don't need the card, cast an instant instead.
Reliquary Tower - There's a chance you'll need this, and again, it costs you very little.
High Market - Cash in a drake token for a life, or sacrifice something after it's been stolen!
Lonely Sandbar - Cycling lands are good if you over-draw land.
Magosi, the Waterveil - I've been searching for the right deck to play this in, and with the reactive nature of this deck, I think it's here.  There's no way to abuse this, you'll play it fairly.  If a turn cycle passes while you've got Talrand and a couple of fun instants, skip your turn and stay at the ready.  Then take two turns!  
Maze of Ith - Pure utility, so that you can prevent the damage of their big trampler and chump block the non-trample with the Drake tokens.
Mystifying Maze - Maze effect #2, and for some creatures, a huge stay-away.  Animar really hates this card.
Remote Isle - Cycling effect #2. Sometimes you just need one more spell!
Riptide Laboratory - I didn't know this had gotten so expensive, but this effect can save Talrand from being shuffled into your deck, which is often called a 'tuck'.
Terrain Generator - This is the opposite of the cycling lands, but if you end up with lots in hand, get them into play faster!
Temple of the False God - An extra mana for no downside.
Thawing Glaciers - This is clunky, but it finds you a basic land every other turn.  It's really hard to have mana fixing without permanents, but this does the job.
Tolaria West - Find what you need, but most of the time, you'll look for Thawing Glaciers.
Vesuva - Then make another Glaciers!

Remember that with Talrand out, every one of the following spells comes with a 2/2 Drake.  There's no greater value out there!

First, let's talk counterspells. 
Cancel - Basic and effective.
Commandeer - This can be a total blowout when someone tries to cast a gamewinning spell.  Exsanguinate for 50?  Thank you, drive through.  Blue Sun's Zenith to make you draw your deck?  You first!
Counterspell - Even more basic and just as effective!
Cryptic Command - You can do so much with this card, it's just obscene.  This card helped define Standard for two years, and would have even if it cost UUUU. Four choices, all relevant, being exactly what you need.
Desertion - Not just a counterspell, but potential creature/artifact steal! 
Dismiss - This is what Cryptic Command's modes usually are.
Dissipate - And stay out!
Foil - I'm never going to advocate Force of Will in EDH.  I know some swear by it, but not me.  This is the Force's ugly cousin, requiring a precious Island to be discarded when your deck wants every land.  This may be a weak choice.
Forbid - This may be overkill, but the buyback has real potential if you start drawing lots of cards.
Exclude - Counter the huge creature and I get a card?  Done.
Hinder - To tuck an annoying general will give you such a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Overwhelming Intellect - Double the cost of Exclude, but with a far greater number of cards drawn.
Rewind - So glad to see the reprint!
Spell Burst - Buyback counterspell capability.  Do not trifle with this card.
Spell Crumple - Counter-tuck card #2.  There's not enough shuffle in this deck to reliably see the spell again, though.
Spelljack - This is expensive, but you get the spell.  Planeswalkers watch out!

Bone to Ash
Faerie Trickery
Fervent Denial
Flash Counter
Last Word
Summoner's Bane

These are a bit too narrow for my taste, and in many cases they are second copies of a spell that I don't need seconds on.  I like Controvert, but Recover is such an expensive mechanic that I don't think it would fit well here.

Some instant card draw spells:
Blue Sun's Zenith - Instant new hand if you need it.
Brainstorm -  Classic, effective, and cheap.  This could be Ponder or Preordain, but I wanted at least one single-mana instant card.
Impulse - This card is full-time amazing.  Instant speed to get the card you want!  
Oona's Grace - 2U to draw a card is ok, being an instant helps, and being a way to pitch the 13th land and re-use it puts this over the top for me.
Think Twice - Our first flashback card.  With Talrand out it reads: "1U: Put a 2/2 Drake into play. Draw a card." Repeat for 2U.
Whispers of the Muse - You might not have played with a deck that likes to leave mana open like this.  Whispers is a card that makes people cry if you have enough counterspells in your deck.  It's always sad to leave mana open for a counterspell and then people do nothing from fear...so you draw a card!  And get a Drake!

Jace's Ingenuity
Telling Time
Visions of Beyond

These are all good cards, but not good enough or too expensive compared to our options.  I dearly love Telling Time, but it's just not going to get there, I think.

Some instant utility:
Capsize - A classic buyback spell, and a blue staple.  With a 2/2 flyer.
Dominate - I've used this before and had good results, but without any mana acceleration, you're stuck stealing things that have been on the board for a couple of turns.
Echoing Truth - A cheap instant and a great answer to lots of problems, especially 'token swarm' problems.
Gather Specimens - I have an irrational love for this card.  It can steal any creature, and you'll even get to control any 'enters the battlefield' effects it has!  If you have this and Whispers in hand, you're just waiting for the right time.
High Tide - Our only source of mana advantage, it's good for one turn.  I thought this was a sorcery! 
Into the Roil - Bounce a problem, get a token, draw a card.  Triple win. 
Mnemonic Nexus - I chose this over some other spells as a way to reload the deck, but Nexus offers the chance to mess with others' graveyards too.
Mind Games - Another buyback spell that doesn't see the play it perhaps should.  At worst, you're tapping land that was already tapped, just to get another Drake.
Pongify - I'm surprised at the blue decks that don't run this card. (Even mine!) This deck is woefully short of permanent answers, and this will take care of a lot of things.
Ray of Command - This is extraordinarily powerful when someone has a pair of overwhelming creatures.  Take one, block the other, they both go away.  Really great if someone is cloning Blightsteel Colossus.
Reins of Power - Did someone make a token swarm? Punish them for their insolence.
Repeal - Great utility, kills tokens, draws a card.
Spin into Myth - A classic 'tuck' effect.  Put their general on top, then make sure that card goes to the bottom.
Turn to Frog - This is a fun interaction if they are attacking you with one big creature.  Turn it to a Frog, then block with the Drake you just made.  Ribbit! 

Crippling Chill
Frost Breath
Defy Gravity
Mental Note
Veil of Secrecy

Veil was the only effect that could save Talrand, but that's what the counterspells are for.  Twincast and Reverberation could be good, but they are too situational for my taste.  Evacuation is pretty weak in this deck, as it bounces all of your Drakes to oblivion.  I like the cheap flashback spells, as well as a spell you can buy back (Clockspinning) but they are too niche.

Finally, the sorceries:
Stealing effects:
Acquire - Classic.  Steal and don't feel bad.
Blatant Thievery - More theft!
Bribery - Stealing spree! 
Govern the Guildless - It's a crime wave!
Knowledge Exploitation - What's really fun here is that you get a drake for casting this spell, and then another for casting the spell you took from their deck!
Legerdemain - Worth noting that you cannot use the drake token that you make with this spell as one of the things to switch.  You choose targets when you cast the spell, not when it resolves.
Rite of Replication - Another blue staple.  Sometimes you'll kick this on someone's Malakir Bloodwitch and just win. 
Spelltwine - This is amazing with Talrand.  You'll get THREE drakes when it is over with!
Stolen Goods - I have a soft spot for these random effects.
Switcheroo - See note on Legerdemain.
Telemin Performance - A random creature!  Yay!  Pro tip: Choose the Kaalia deck.  Or the green deck.


Political Trickery
Switching land just isn't worth it.  The Stolen Goods and the Telemin could probably come out for something more consistent, but I really enjoy the random effects.  If you happen to win with them, so much the better!

Sorcery-speed card draw spells:
Deep Analysis - Flashback card draw? Sold.
Recurring Insight - Rebound is important, because you're casting the spell the second time around. 
Treasure Hunt - You're getting multiple cards for very little mana.  At worst, it's 1U:  Draw a card.

Amass the Components
Covenant of Minds 
Compulsive Research
Counsel of the Soratami
Distant Memories
Ghastly Discovery
Flow of Ideas
Train of Thought

It's not that any of these cards are bad, they just don't do enough.  There may be something to the idea of stuffing this deck full of card draw spells and just blazing through them all.

Finally, some useful sorceries:
Distorting Wake - It's both targeted and mass.  Expensive, though.
Inundate - Six mana but it saves your Drakes! 
Merchant Scroll - This is the only tutor in the deck.  I don't have any Mystical Tutor or Personal Tutor, so I didn't consider those.  Plus, I really don't enjoy tutoring to the top of my deck.
Mystic Speculation - I've been dying for a deck that can take advantage of this effect, and here it is.  The scry is not as important as 2U: put a 2/2 Flyer into play.  Repeat.
Silent Departure - This may be a weak card, but it's cheap the first time, ok the second, and getting Drakes each time.
Talrand's Invocation - Got to be here.
Grasp of Phantoms - Pure Flashback value.
Wash Out - This might be overkill with the Inundate, but it's two mana less.

Distortion Strike
Artful Dodge
Time Reversal

I really want Artful Dodge here, as it's UU for 2 tokens, but unblockable will hardly ever matter.  Dematerialize is just too expensive, even with the Drake bonus.

Spells that get back spells!
Call to Mind - Can you loop these together indefinitely?
Relearn - You certainly can!  Repeat until you're bored, run out of tokens, or no more mana.
Déjà Vu - The third spell is an option too, but I couldn't play all three. 

A special section of cards:
Beacon of Tomorrows
Temporal Mastery
Time Warp
Time Stretch

I'm not playing these.  This deck is not an infinite-turn combo machine, and can't effectively take advantage of extra turns.  Any of these cards would pretty much be an extra attack step, and that is useful, but not worth the table full of hatred that I would receive after taking the extra turn.  Should you wish to add these, go for it.  I'm presenting my ideas and my philosophy--your mileage may vary.

After a few sample hands, and a couple of games online, I have to say that this deck requires a very different style of play.  I don't think I've ever built such a reactive deck.  Usually I like to play lots of creatures, attack as often as possible, and mentally prepare for the Day of Judgment that will make me start the process again. With this deck, I always have something to do, and it's got the counterspell power to stop others' evil plans!

I don't think this is the final list, as I mentioned above.  There's a lot more games to be played, more games where a card sits in my hand and I hate it, or maybe 39 mana isn't enough in this deck.  But I think it's 90% or so there.

If you don't want to play without permanents, there's a lot of options for you.  Some equipment to give Talrand more longevity would be useful, a Mirari might be too amazing, a Bösium Strip, an obscure yet awesome card for a deck like this.  Omniscience is probably a winner here, as is Arcane Melee.  

As always, I hope you enjoyed this.  I haven't built this deck in person yet, I'm still working on getting all my M13 changes in.  I might not build this in person, because I don't have spares of a lot of the more amazing blue spells that have a home in my Azami deck (Bribery, Acquire, etc.)  We'll see.  My new local meta has a lot of blue mages fighting for turns and board control.

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