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January 25, 2017

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Going Rogue: Ballistic Eggs

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn’t the goal but it often happens anyway.

Today I want to take a step back and reflect on better times in Modern. Times when every turn was a careful sequence of complicated interactions. Times when your opponent’s actions meant nothing other than giving you another turn. Times when you could spend 20 minutes trying to play out your entire deck and still lose. When regardless of what happened in the match, one thing was all-but-certain: Your opponent was going to have a miserable time.

Yes, I’m talking about Eggs. The deck that operates by cantripping mana-producing artifacts (or “Eggs” – harkening back to the Odyssey cycle of Darkwater Egg and its ilk), combined with mass recursion effects like Second Sunrise, to eventually generate a ton of mana with Krark-Clan Ironworks and win with something like a Grapeshot or Banefire.

The deck has had some strong moments, but was never truly top tier. Nevertheless, its tiresome gameplay got the attention of the DCI, and in May 2013, Second Sunrise was banned. It may actually be the only deck in history not to be banned for oppression, but for sheer boredom. (As an aside, if this logic prevails, what’s keeping Lantern Control and Taking Turns afloat? But I disgress.)

Cut down to only four copies of this effect (the deck also ran Faith’s Reward), the deck’s consistency was decimated, and it faded unceremoniously into obsolescence.

Until today.

Today the deck can look at itself in the mirror with a shred of reinvigorated respect, because gone are the days where Eggs simply replaces Second Sunrise with Open the Vaults and tries to pretend it’s the same thing. No, today, we get a whole swath of new goodies from Aether Revolt that make an enormous difference in the smooth ticking of this nonsense machine.

For starters, Improvise is an incredibly powerful mechanic for a deck whose artifacts don’t normally tap. Metallic Rebuke is virtually always going to be a one-mana Mana Leak here, and along with Hope of Ghirapur, offers the deck an element of efficient control and combo protection, easily displacing Silence out of older lists.

The real Improvise star, though, is Whir of Invention. While the deck already had Reshape before, along with plenty of artifacts to profitably sacrifice into it, the improved speed of Whir offers the deck the threat of tutoring up the game-winning artifact at your opponent’s end step when they tap low (like Deceiver Exarch until this time last year), while also accessing powerful timely bullets like Pithing Needle to keep your opponent’s game at bay while you continue to set up.

Tutoring becomes especially effective after sideboarding, where you can access to things like Dispeller’s Capsule to clear away a pesky Rest in Peace before the turn where your graveyard actually becomes important.

When the worst-case scenario for the card is sinking UUU at end of turn into a Lotus Bloom to untap with for some pretty impressive ramp, you know you’re in a good place.

Finally, Scrap Trawler is an absolute godsend for this deck. It is a value engine strong enough to make Matter Reshaper blush, and once you get the combo going, it renders your risk of failure virtually nonexistent.

Normally, the way this combo works is to get a Krark-Clan Ironworks out, sacrifice all your artifacts to it (including Darksteel Citadel and Mox Opal), drawing their cantrip trade-ins as you go, and recur everything with Faith’s Reward to do it all again. With enough artifacts, you effectively draw your deck, make a zillion mana, and Banefire your opponent into uncounterable oblivion.

Okay, that’s cute. But when you add a Scrap Trawler into the mix, you don’t need to worry about not drawing your White spells to recur everything. Here’s a common sequence with it and the Ironworks [Mana tracking in brackets]:

  • Tap and sacrifice Mox Opal [3]
  • Sacrifice Chromatic Star, drawing a card and recurring Mox Opal [5]
  • Replay Mox Opal, tap it for mana, sacrifice it [8]
  • Sacrifice Ichor Wellspring, drawing a card and recurring Chromatic Star [10]
  • Replay Chromatic Star [9], sacrifice it [11], drawing a card and recurring Mox Opal
  • Replay Mox Opal, tap it for mana and sacrifice it [14]

Yeah, that’s 14 mana and three cards out of some pretty ordinary stuff you’re likely to have lying around. Not bad, eh?

But what to do with all this mana?

First world problems, amirite?

But actually, this used to be a legitimate problem with the deck. There were common sequences where your combo fizzled out with tons of mana all dressed up with nowhere to go. The Banefire in your hand doesn’t look so hot when it’s sublethal with the mana you have available, and it’s the only win condition in your deck.

Simply put, the deck had nothing to do in between setting up and winning.

Enter Walking Ballista.

Move aside Banefire, there is a new win condition in town, and it does it all.

Walking Ballista is the real deal here. The combo generates more than enough mana to make the difference between X and XX completely trivial, and even paying 4 for incremental boosts and pings is a rate we can afford if it’s already in play. It also offers the enormous advantage of being used iteratively to mow down opposing creatures and offer this deck an unexpected entry into interaction town. And if you’re still looking for more… its converted mana cost is zero. (Ballista, meet Trawler. Trawler, Ballista.)

While it feels like a shame that Faith’s Reward can’t recurWalking Ballista directly, it’s not a stretch to make it work, as recurring a Scrap Trawler and some sort of eggs will get it back to your hand, ready to once again machine gun down everything in its path.

I didn’t expect Ballista to show up when I was first considering modernizing this deck, but it quickly proved itself to be the answer this deck was searching for.

The List

Building this list definitely took many iterations, though. The Ballista aside, testing and tweaking led me to discover a few important things:

First, Whir of Invention is hard to cast with the original mana base which often ran a full set of Ghost Quarters. This angle gave the deck a cute mana denial angle which works nicely with Faith’s Reward, but which I found ultimately too resource-intensive to commit to and distracting from the main objective. I replaced these with Seachrome Coasts, and replaced the fourth copy of Whir with Inventors’ Fair. The result is a smoother mana execution and the unexpected addition of a new combo piece. (I wonder if the deck might actually want a second.)

Second, Scrap Trawler is always good, but doesn’t scale up that well in multiples as your recursion overlaps your board state. It’s also the only killable creature in the deck, and part of a combo deck’s strength is in blanking our opponents’ Fatal Pushes by giving them no targets. I widdled it down to one copy in the main as a juicy engine to run into mid-combo or tutor up with a Whir, and relegated the other three copies to the sideboard for grindy matchups, or for laying the unexpected beatdown alongside a full set of Ensoul Artifacts.

And third, Scavenging Ooze and certain Planeswalkers are significant enough problems to justify running a single maindeck Pithing Needle. Many other cards were tried in this spot, or in addition to this spot, but fell into sideboard world. (And if you think drawing the Needle while it’s dead in certain matchups is awful, keep reading because I’ve got a surprise for you.)

All in all, it’s a bit of a wonky one, but can win a lot of games once you’ve gotten in sufficient practice rounds.

Let’s take a peek:

Alex’s Ballistic Eggs

Land: (18)
Darksteel Citadel
Flooded Strand
Seachrome Coast
Island
Hallowed Fountain
Inventors’ Fair

Artifacts: (30)
Lotus Bloom
 Mox Opal
Chromatic Sphere
Chromatic Star
Terrarion
Ichor Wellspring
Mind Stone
Krark-Clan Ironworks
Pithing Needle
Scrap Trawler
Semblance Anvil
Walking Ballista

Spells: (12)
Thoughtcast
Whir of Invention
Faith’s Reward
Open the Vaults

Sideboard: (15)
Scrap Trawler
Ensoul Artifact
 Spell Pierce
Defense Grid
Dispeller’s Capsule
Echoing Truth
Grafdigger’s Cage
Sunbeam Spellbomb

I’ve talked through most of these selections already, and obvious sideboard cards are obvious, but some of you might have noticed an oddball singleton sitting in the maindeck. What’s that about?

This is a weird card. Fortunately, this is also a weird deck.

When drawn organically, Semblance Anvil can cause this deck to straight-up drop its hand on the table as early as turn two, letting us focus our mana and efforts on churning through our eggs to find the missing pieces. This burst in speed is usually powerful enough to accept the risk of getting 2-for-1 Abrupt Decayed. It’s also an excellent Whir target, as it can dispose of unwanted extra cards like a dead Pithing Needle or extra Mox Opal.

What makes this card truly shine though, is its interaction with our all-star card, Walking Ballista. The first +1/+1 counter free might not seem like a big deal, but this means that with a Scrap Trawler and the average collection of eggs, we can very realistically go near-infinite with pings all over the place, while also keeping the marginal cost of each loop efficient and low to the ground. It’s a powerful machine gun effect that adds to exactly what this deck wants to do, and earns Semblance Anvil a welcome 1-of spot in the deck. (Truthfully, I’m surprised there isn’t a 4-of deck for this somewhere in Modern…… yet…. but that’s for another day.)

Anyways. The other thing you might have noticed is that I talked up Hope of Ghirapur and Metallic Rebuke, but neither is anywhere to be found in this 75. Hope was interesting but I found it to be unreliable. Abrupt Decay will still be a thing post-board, and there are too many decks that it can’t reliably attack through to enable its trigger. I’ve opted to go with Defense Grid instead as a strong way to use Whir to force your opponent’s hand on their end step. Meanwhile Metallic Rebuke is new and exciting, but sadly doesn’t reliably get under Stony Silence, which is almost unbeatable outside of Ensoul beatdowns. Spell Pierce gets the nod here instead.

Checking In

Overall, the deck’s performance has been quite good – apart from pushing both the clock and my opponents’ patience to the limit. I didn’t play Eggs before, so I have nothing to compare it to, but it certainly feels like a Modern-viable strategy right now. An early Ballista buys a ton of time against creatures that don’t end in “armogoyf”, and Whir’s flexibility allows for some very interesting games. Heck, even the loop gets to be enjoyable once you’re halfway decent at it.

What do you think? Could this miserable timesuck be strong enough to ruin tournaments once again? I’m torn between hoping so and hoping not, to be honest, but I suppose I’ll be happy so long as I’m on the right side of the table.

That’s all for this week – let me know your thoughts in the comments. And as always, until next time – have fun, and may the force be with brew!