October 21, 2015

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Going Rogue: Modern’s 10-Best Build-Around-Me Cards

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

Today I want to highlight a subject near and dear to every Johnny’s heart: The “build-around-me” card.

What’s a build-around-me card?
A build-around-me-card is a card that is very particular about the deck it will call home, but once comfortable, acts as the central piece that the deck depends on for success. A must-answer in the right deck, and typically totally unplayable anywhere else. Last week’s article about Heartless Summoning is a perfect example (and one that could have justifiably made this list had we not highlighted it so recently.)

Build-around-me cards are exciting. That moment where you discover a new card and become inspired to find a way to break it is one of the best moments of the game for some players, myself included. Sometimes it works, and you wind up with a deck so powerful that it could only be stopped by a ban, a-la Second Sunrise in Eggs. And of course other times (perhaps most times) it doesn’t.

Today, we’re going to look at ten of Modern’s best build-around-me cards and at what makes them so special. The requirements for this list are simple:

  1. The card must influence the majority of the other card selections in the deck, or be otherwise crucial to a win condition.
  2. The card must be able to be built-around in multiple ways in the format (sorry The Rack, Scapeshift, and Ad Nauseam, you don’t count.)
  3. At least one deck that uses the card must be Modern viable at the time of this publication

Now with only ten spots to use, I know I’ll inevitably leave out some favourites, so please don’t be shy in the comments with some honorable mentions. That being said, without further ado, here’s the list:

10. Jeskai Ascendancy‘s day in the sun might be behind us, but the reality is that this is still a tremendously powerful card with a wealth of ways to make it work. Mana dorks? Mutavaults? Fatestitchers? Your call. Fling an enormous Sylvan Caryatid? Go infinite with tokens, Chord of Calling, and Eternal Witness? Keep-it-simple-stupid Grapeshot? Your call.

Although these decks show up at FNMs less often than they ought to since it was knocked out of Tier 1 status by the loss of Treasure Cruise, you could very easily assemble a method of abusing this card to no end. I think we can all agree that it’s unlikely we never see a return of Jeskai Ascendancy to Modern prowess. (Pun intended.)

9. When the real value of every creature in your deck is the effect it triggers when it enters the battlefield, a card like Ghostway can take a value deck to the next level. From as simple as Wall of Omens to as game-ending as Reveillark, Ghostway is an incredibly fun and powerful card to build around in a format full of excellent ETB effects.

Based in white, it already has access to its best possible targets, which also include Blade Splicer, Kitchen Finks, and Flickerwisp, among many others. And these options quickly skyrocket once you get into other colours, with Snapcaster Mage, Eternal Witness, Siege Rhino and others.

There are 1162 creatures with ETB effects in Modern, and Ghostway makes all of them about twice as good. Take a look at your options and have fun.

8. Sure, Seismic Assault may take a back seat to Scapeshift as Modern’s most powerful land-based win condition, but it’s flexibility is far superior. On the MTGSalvation forums, its primer suggests eight different tournament-quality build options, with a total of 38 different other main deck cards to pair it with (albeit, never without Life from the Loam, for obvious reasons.

Got the aggro bug? Red-Green has you covered. Looking for a control build? Add in blue for a totally different deck. Hooked on Synergy? Try four-colour builds with Knight of the Reliquary and Lingering Souls. Feeling silly? Swans of Bryn Argoll ends the game on the spot. So many ways to play a completely different game of magic, thanks to this card.

It also gets bonus points for potentially being the magic card whose name describes exactly what it does. They might as well have straight-up called it “throw lands at you” .

7. Gifts Ungiven is a very unique kind of build-around-me card. While – by virtue of being a tutor – it influences less total card selections in your deck than most others on this list, it does some very particular things in the cards it does force. Why else would a deck ever play singleton copies of Wrath of God, Day of Judgment, Supreme Verdict, and both an Island and Snow-Covered Island. Or singleton copies of Eternal Witness and Noxious Revival?

Gifts decks may not entirely win around Gifts options, but it certainly does strange things to the building process. And then on the other hand there’s always Unburial Rites and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite.

Fun things can happen when your options open up this wide.

6. I’m a huge fan of creatures that like to die, and it appears this guy and I are on the same page. Two mana is a lot to pay for a 0/1 that does basically nothing in most decks. However when put in the right place, things can become totally absurd.

Blood Artist is most commonly seen in the Modern Aristocrats deck, featuring friends like Viscera Seer, Doomed Traveler, and Cartel Aristocrat to turn opposing removal into value, and set up a series of mini-combos to paint some massive life swings. However the options are nearly endless. You can build around Blood Artist with cards like Illness in the Ranks, to turn downsides on cards like Forbidden Orchard and Mercy Killing into obscene value engines, or even simply add it to existing recursive combos like Kitchen Finks + Melira, Sylvok Outcast, or the last week’s Heartless Summoning + Myr Retriever loop as another win con option.

I’m excited to have just gained some great redundancy in the form of Zulaport Cutthroat, and am eager to see where Blood Artist shows up in the next year.

5. Speaking of creatures that like to die, Vengevine is a staple in nearly every graveyard-based deck in Modern. Simultaneously aggro and grindy, these decks tend to feature the nasty trifecta of Vengevine, Gravecrawler, and Lotleth Troll, and can be very different to beat without graveyard interaction.

Vengevine decks almost always sport the black-green core with varying degrees of Grisly Salvage and Dredge effects, and often dipping into red for Faithless Looting, blue for Thought Scour, or white for Knight of the Reliquary. If that’s not enough flexibility for you, there even exists a Grixis build with exactly zero ways to cast Vengevine, should it get stuck in your hand. Instead, it uses Flamekin Harbinger and Hedron Crab to tutor it into the graveyard, and gets to run strange synergies like Snapcaster Mage + Peel from Reality, or Memnites + Retract to fuel the engine. I’ve even seen cards like Dream Stalker and Faerie Impostor.

Strange things happen when you have incentive to cast cheap creatures all day long.

4. Like most of you, I first looked at the Titan cycle and thought “Awesome, awesome, awesome, awesome, lame.” After all, who could possibly need more ramp once you’re already at six mana? Silly me. In the six years that have passed since then, no other Titan has seen even close to Primeval Titan‘s level of play.

Although it looks like a beater, Primeval Titan is mainly used as the central combo piece to at least three different decks. It turns out if you pack your deck full of ramp spells and get a Titan out on turn 3 or earlier, you can do some pretty obscene things. Just go ask Amulet of Vigor + Summer Bloom, Utopia Vow + Garruk Wildspeaker, or even Through the Breach + Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. Perhaps most fascinating is what Primeval Titan does to a mana base. Great later additions like Kessig Wolf Run and Slayers’ Stronghold opened up crazy new options, meanwhile grabbing Tolaria West and a Simic Growth Chamber to transmute into a Summoner’s Pact for another Titan tickles my Johnny bone like no other.

Both subtle and bombastic, Primeval Titan is one of the best build-arounds Modern has to offer.

3. It’s not too often that you get a card like this at common. Terrible in limited environments yet devastating with the right support is typically a trait reserved for higher rarity cards. Yet here it is, and from its time in Standard right through to Vintage and even Pauper, Delver of Secrets has proven itself as one of the game’s most ubiquitous 1-drops.

While not many aggressive decks can get away with playing 30+ instants and sorceries, Delver is exceptionally unique in being able to effectively surround itself with only the cheapest frends, enabling greedy builds with as little as as 18-lands, even across three colours. Easy access to Tarmogoyf or Gurmag Angler help push this strategy forward, and of course Young Pyromancer is so great a partner in redundancy that it could be just as easily highlighted as the card of choice here.

Meanwhile, there is still plenty of room for creativity. Ninja of the Deep Hours and Disrupting Shoal allowed Delver to quarterback one of Modern’s few effective mono-blue decks, and you can even reach a little far to cards like Ojutai’s Command to enable Delver to become a great pivot player in a control shell.

2. Ah, the new kid on the block. Collected Company quickly answered its prerelease skeptics by surging to become a $20 rare, based almost entirely on Modern demand. It was quickly discovered that this was an effective replacement for Birthing Pod for executing the Kitchen Finks + Melira, Sylvok Outcast combo, and soonafter that it was simply a solid way to add card advantage to beatdown decks. Variance be damned.

Collected Company is a spectacular build-around card. While demanding (popular wisdom suggests you need 25+ valid targets for it in the deck), it is extremely versatile. Grab a beater and an Eternal Witness to regrowth the Collected Company for supreme value. Flash in a Geist of Saint Traft to sidestep Pyroclasm. Cheat past secondary costs on Skaab Ruinator. Counter a spell with Spiketail Drakeling. And if that’s not enough, it has single-handledly brought tribal decks like Elves and Allies into competitive contention, with maybe more tribes to come down the road.

Newbie comes in at #2.

1. And finally, Modern’s best build-around-me cards, the Urza Lands. Pick your colours, your land tutors, and your enormous colourless spells, and go nuts.

It’s amazing what these things can do, from turning Condescend into a counterspell-of-the-year shoe-in, to making a turn-2 Sylvan Scrying into a must-counter, to enabling Modern’s most hilarious (and infuriating) kill, the Mindslaver + Academy Ruins lock. And these are only the mainstream builds. Green-White Tron adds an early Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, mono-Black Tron goes wild with Diabolic Revelation, and even mono-Green variants that push ramping to the limit with Magus of the Candelabra and Summer Bloom.

Perhaps it is to no one’s surprise that in a game constrained solely by the availability of mana that breaking that rule opens a world of crazy, and often highly competitive possibilities.

Did your favourite build-around-me card get left out? Let me know in the comments. Magic is ripe with creative potential, and truthfully enough could be written about this subject to fill a magazine.

I hope you enjoyed reading this Top 10 list as much as I enjoyed writing it. Join in again next week as we look at one of the stranger ways of controlling the game. Just be sure not to deck yourself in the process.

Until then, have fun, and may the force be with brew.