Three on Two: Temur Walkers, Elk Blade, Goblin Blade and Dino Blade

by Zvi Don't Worry About the Vase11 min read14th Nov 20191 comment

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Remember: Ban the London Mulligan

It all started when I faced an awful-seeming Temur deck that played a second turn The Royal Scions. It ended with a bunch of decks that use Arboreal Grazer and Gilded Goose as a bridge to Embercleave.

At the time, I was playing a mono-green deck designed to kill players on turn four or occasionally turn three, so playing a bunch of planeswalkers that all died did not seem impressive. The deck seemed terrible. But Brian David-Marshall, who was watching, found the list and told me this was the Deck of the Moment, designed by Jeff Hoogland. By using Arboreal Grazer and Gilded Goose with Once Upon a Time and the London Mulligan, you could start deploying planeswalkers on turn two more reliably than those relying only on Gilded Goose, building strong sweeper-resistant pressure on an opponents’ life total that also did not much care about an army of 2/2 zombies with Questing Beast, Wicked Wolf and Sarkhan, the Masterless as the high end.

At the time, these were important considerations. Jeff abandoned the deck after Field of the Dead was banned, as its plan is not especially relevant in Oko mirrors.

The thing I loved was not playing any two mana plays, whatsoever. You’re in a hurry. The two drops available are bad. We don’t have time for two mana Elks. Now we can concentrate on playing a stream of great cards that cost three to five mana, which is much better.

The deck had three key weaknesses.

The first was that the mana was substantially worse than traditional Oko decks. Double red for Sarkhan, the Masterless was a bit of a stretch. Arboreal Grazer gives you an additional way for things to go wrong, gives you one less draw to find your lands on time. If you didn’t follow your Gilded Goose with an Oko, Thief of Crowns, you’d have serious issues on the third turn, since your color was often cut off, and if you had any of the three Temple of Epiphany there was no reasonable time to cast them. Playing second turn The Royal Scions seemed like a potential disaster if it wasn’t off of Arboreal Grazer, in which case it was fine if it set up Questing Beast. With four copies, you often wouldn’t have much choice. Domri, Anarch of Bolas on turn two also often didn’t impress.

The second problem was that Once Upon a Time couldn’t hit most of your threats. It was still a great card, because it’s ridiculous and should be banned, but only hitting mana later with no good way to use that mana was going to be very sad.

The third problem was that the deck wasn’t great in Oko mirrors. You were leaning heavily on Questing Beast and Sarkhan, the Masterless. That made Wicked Wolf much better for them than you, and you didn’t have the Nissa, Who Shakes the World package. If you faced someone who wanted it more than you, you were likely going down. At the time this was mostly acceptable.

In general, the big issue was we were counting on Oko, Thief of Crowns on turn two in ways that other Oko builds weren’t. You needed something to do a reasonable Oko imitation when you didn’t have one.

Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer does a reasonable Oko, Thief of Crowns imitation on turn two. Not a good one. It’s ludicrously worse. But it’s still kind of Oko-ish, in that if they don’t answer it right away you have a 4/4 flyer and a ticking clock generating more of them while it shuts down an attacker or often importantly a flying or 3+ power blocker. By diversifying two copies of The Royal Scions into Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer, you were much more likely to do something threatening on turn two, and also gave yourself a shot to do both by turn three, and more diversity to get multiple walkers into play for Sarkhan when he showed up.

The other big improvement was to put four copies of Bonecrusher Giant into the sideboard. Bonecrusher Giant was irrelevant in the most important matchups, so you can’t start it, but where it was good it helped with all your problems. You got removal for small creatures. You got a way to keep hands that didn’t have a one drop. You even got a way to find something powerful with Once Upon a Time, which was desperately needed. It did all that without increasing risk of drawing too much air with your eight one mana creatures. When the long game was your friend and you needed a bridge, this was a great bridge.

After finalizing all the tweaks, this was the resulting decklist (again, regardless of bans, please do not play this):

4 Arboreal Grazer

4 Gilded Goose
4 Oko, Thief of Crowns
2 Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer
3 The Royal Scions

3 Sarkhan the Masterless
1 Skarrgan Hellkite
4 Once Upon a Time
4 Wicked Wolf
4 Questing Beast
2 Domri, Anarch of Bolas

6 Forest.

2 Island

4 Breeding Pool
4 Steam Vents
4 Stomping Ground
3 Temple of Epiphany
2 Mountain

Sideboard
4 Disdainful Stroke
2 Veil of Summer
1 Lava Coil
4 Bonecrusher Giant
2 Aether Gust
2 Flame Sweep

With those upgrades and aggressive (but probably not aggressive enough) use of the London Mulligan, the deck was strong enough to get me to Diamond.

Then I figured out Elk Blade.

I knew that Temur Walkers was doing one thing exceptionally well, which was getting to three mana on turn two. Its ways to take advantage of that other than Oko, Thief of Crowns, and its top end in general, felt like they weren’t getting the job done. I wanted to be playing creatures rather than planeswalkers, especially because Once Upon a Time.

Looking at the messed up Magic card that was Embercleave, it suddenly hit me that it would fit right in. Questing Beast is already the perfect target, and this gave Arboreal Grazer and Gilded Goose something to do. You could attack for zero to allow you to cast Embercleave.

Suddenly it all was coming together. What if this was a Gruul deck that played blue only for Oko, Thief of Crowns? What tools did we have available?

A  quick search brought out this chart:

Arboreal Grazer Zhur-Taa Goblin Legion Warboss Wicked Wolf
Skarggan Hellkite
Gilded Goose Robber of the Rich Gruul Spellbreaker Questing Beast
Pelt Collector
Bonecrusher Giant
Lovestruck Beast
Yorvo, Lord of Garenberg
Colission / Colossus
Oko, Thief of Crowns
Embercleave
Domri, Anarch of Bolas
Domri’s Ambush
Once Upon a Time

If I did it today, the only card I’d add would be Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin. We’ll get to him later. Maybe one could include Edgewall Inkeeper and Rimrock Knight as a potential package, if you don’t think that is a distinct deck. After Richmond I briefly attempted to smash the two together, which did not go well.

Once you’re looking at the cards in this grid, it’s all rather obvious. You’re clearly going to take Questing Beast, Embercleave and Oko, Thief of Crowns. Second turn Legion Warboss sounds pretty awesome once you say that out loud. Once you have a source of 1/1 creatures, Lovestruck Beast sounds pretty great. That only leaves one slot, which I gave to Gruul Spellbreaker, except one copy I gave to The Royal Scions because it felt like the deck didn’t quite have enough breakthrough in it.

I cut the mana down to 24 lands since I’d cut the curve down a bit, and got rid of two of the three Temples of Epiphany on the grounds that they’re rather terrible when you don’t draw Arboreal Grazer and I was willing to risk the blue being a little shaky.

The sideboard was also easy to build. I knew from experience we’d want Bonecrusher Giant. The best card against Golos decks was Disdainful Stroke. Conversely, if you were up against creature decks, you’d want Wicked Wolf. The last three slots went to Veil of Summer, because of course they did.

I spun the computer around and said to Brian David-Marshall and Mike Flores, who were in the room at the time, “I give you the end of the f***ing world.” Cause why not have fun with such things, ya know?

A few hours later, Brian would correctly and permanently dub the deck “Elk Blade.”

7 Forest

4 Mountain

4 Steam Vents

4 Breeding Pool

4 Stomping Ground

1 Temple of Epiphany

4 Once Upon a Time

4 Arboreal Grazer

4 Gilded Goose

4 Oko, Thief of Crowns

1 The Royal Scions

3 Gruul Spellbreaker

4 Legion Warboss

4 Lovestruck Beast

4 Questing Beast

4 Embercleave

Sideboard

4 Bonecrusher Giant

4 Wicked Wolf

4 Disdainful Stroke

3 Veil of Summer

That sideboard does exactly what you want it to do, allowing you to orient your deck towards the enemy while retaining the critical mass of cards that enforce the central play pattern. You get one spell, either Veil of Summer or Disdainful Stroke, where you are facing the appropriate spells and the card would be insanely great. You never put in both at once. If neither is good, you likely want to orient towards a creature battle, so you put in creatures that double as removal. When you’re the control role, you lose Legion Warboss, The Royal Scions and maybe trim Embercleave. When you’re the beatdown but want to kill things or add counters, you lose Lovestruck Beast and then Gruul Spellbreaker since everything is good. When you simply have better options, you lose Gruul Spellbreaker.

At the time, this deck was ridiculously good. Its matchup against Field of the Dead is excellent, as you are too fast and very good at surviving sweepers and going through zombie armies if things get that far along. Then you add Disdainful Stroke. Against aggressive decks, you get to come out faster than them and also overpower them, then you shift to having tons of removal and they are even further behind.

The closest matchups were other Oko decks. At the time, these still felt very good. You had more explosive early draws and they don’t have a good answer to Embercleave other than Oko, Thief of Crowns (and usually it has to be a second one because you killed the first one by playing the Embercleave). They couldn’t keep Oko, Thief of Crowns or Nissa, Who Shakes the World alive, after which they fell apart. Occasionally you’d lose because they’d do the thing you were doing better or quicker than you could do it, despite you being better and quicker at it, but that’s just Magic sometimes.

After one match, I was scared to play the deck on the ladder. For the first time in years I had real tech. But I needed reps. After an 11-2 run (including that initial match) I was through Diamond and into Mythic, while Brian went through Gold without a match loss. My only two match losses were to people who won die rolls and played more copies of my own cards than I did, despite having fewer of them. I decided not to play the deck at Mythic to avoid it getting out, and went looking for a testing team.

Then Field of the Dead was banned and every deck started focusing entirely on its Oko matchup.

Testing against the Sultai Oko deck with not only four maindeck Noxious Grasp but also maindeck Massacre Girl was a rude awakening. A week ago most opponents were sideboarding in their Wicked Wolves. Board positions and starts that previously were locks to win against all plausible cards were now often not good enough. The deck was getting destroyed here.

Deeply saddened, I went to work on alternatives while we saw if things would calm down. A week or so later, I started playing the deck at Mythic with Wicked Wolf swapped with Lovestruck Beast. Against ladder players, and without Massacre Girl, the win rate went substantially back up. I learned to play to put Embercleave on Wicked Wolf as my long game whenever possible, which is something they cannot handle if you have food available. I learned to lead on Legion Warboss over Oko, Thief of Crowns to avoid removal spells.

I was winning the majority of my matches against Oko decks again, but I knew it wasn’t real. People are bad at Magic. Pros are much less bad at Magic, and would have been playing mirrors for weeks, and would get my decklist at the start of the match. There was no way this was going to work.

My last attempt was to wonder, what if Oko, Thief of Crowns was so targeted that we want to avoid that? I’d already thought about what I’d do if they banned him, so perhaps he as shadow banned due to all the copies of Noxious Grasp and the need for speed. What if we shifted blue to black and brought in everyone’s favorite Embercleave target, Rotting Regisaur?

Your new crazy draw is Arboreal Grazer into Rotting Regisaur into third turn fourth land plus Embercleave, attacking for 16. Combine that with all the Legion Warboss starts, and you have a lot of ways to come out super threatening.

You’d run it like this (at the time I hadn’t come around to Domri, Anarch of Bolas and Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin, so I was running more copies of Gruul Spellbreaker and Colossus instead):

7 Forest

5 Mountain

4 Stomping Ground

4 Blood Crypt

4 Overgrown Tomb

4 Once Upon a Time

4 Arboreal Grazer

4 Gilded Goose

4 Legion Warboss

4 Rotting Regisaur

1 Gruul Spellbreaker

3 Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin

4 Questing Beast

4 Embercleave

2 Collision // Colossus

2 Domri, Anarch of Bolas

Sideboard

4 Domri’s Ambush

4 Bonecrusher Giant

4 Lovestruck Beast

3 Veil of Summer

The mana does not support Noxious Grasp or discard spells, and you don’t want to trade cards anyway. Sorcerous Spyglass would be a sideboard consideration but it is very much against what the deck wants to do, so I’d be hesitant despite the rise of sacrifice decks. Domri’s Ambush trades cards, which should make you suspicious, but it is still exactly what you want in enough places that I believe it is justified, even if four copies is a lot. If I had something better, I’d be happy trimming some of them.

The big new specific issue with this approach is that Rotting Regisaur is very, very bad against Foulmire Knight and Calderon Familiar unless it picks up a sword, and can be stopped by Wicked Wolf as well. You’re paying a lot to get that card, and then often it ends up being bad. You’re also very all-in on the card when you have it, when it is liable to be turned into an Elk or bounced to your hand at the wrong time.

The big new general issue is that Oko, Thief of Crowns is a completely messed up Magic card, while Rotting Regisaur is a interesting but balanced and ultimately reasonable Magic card that can easily backfire. Your feeling of general flexibility and invincibility is out the window in the name of extra velocity and some positioning, plus the mana got even worse because there is no red/black temple. The deck gets more turn four and five kills, but also a ton more games where it does not operate properly.

So instead I played Jeskai Cavalier Fires. I had a bad draft (it is one draft, so hard to tell how much of that was my fault during the draft versus bad luck in positioning and what was opened), lost the coin flip in the mirror one round (the mirror is super dumb, both of us had draws which win 100% on the play, even against a stacked deck) and went 2-1-1 against Oko decks. Game one is still quite good there, even against pros, but games two and three are reasonably bad once they are on the ball and sideboard eleven cards. You can’t steal one reliably enough.

After Richmond, I was not happy. Then I thought about Domri, Anarch of Bolas again. Did I forget it was a thing because of the conflict with Lovestruck Beast? Was that even a conflict? Sure, the Lovestruck Beast can’t attack, but it can fight while everyone else attacks, and if they don’t kill Domri then are you really going to lose if you’re up against anything aggressive? The card does so much for you, perhaps we should try it. In particular, it works great with Krenko, as does Collision / Colossus, giving us dreams of a huge Goblin army, perhaps with two power. Perhaps we did not need the black after all?

Thus was born Goblin Blade, which I am now happier with than Dino Blade, especially with the rise of Witch’s Oven. We’re doing this now:

11 Forest

9 Mountain

4 Overgrown Tomb

4 Once Upon a Time

4 Arboreal Grazer

4 Gilded Goose

4 Legion Warboss

3 Gruul Spellbreaker

3 Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin

4 Questing Beast

4 Embercleave

3 Collision // Colossus

3 Domri, Anarch of Bolas

Sideboard

4 Domri’s Ambush

4 Bonecrusher Giant

4 Lovestruck Beast

3 Veil of Summer

This is a very clean build. If they can’t interact well with a red two toughness creature, you’re likely to unleash a large army of attackers on the third and fourth turns while continuing to otherwise play your game. You hit fast and you hit hard, going wide in a format where going wide is not the usual approach. You don’t especially care if any given creature is blocked, so Witch’s Oven is not an issue unless they have Mayhem Devil tricks backing it up.

One issue is that the Gruul deck has become an adventure deck with four Domri’s Ambush and four Bonecrusher Giant, which gives it a lot of ways to take out Legion Warboss and Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin. It also has four Kruul Harpooner, so Gilded Goose is likely toast as well. I have been less than thrilled with that matchup. Cavaliers is another future-Standard problem, as Deafening Clarion is exactly what you don’t want to be up against. You can make them have it, but these days ‘make them have it’ is not a good plan, because they always have it. If they didn’t have it, would they even have kept?

You also have all the obvious problems with Massacre Girl and other sweepers, with your plan being to put the game out of reach quickly enough to make that not an issue. But mostly this deck is a gamble that you won’t be facing such problems, and establishing a wide presence quickly will secure the game. We could easily spare a bunch of sideboard space, but I don’t see a good plan B in the offering – we could put in Skarrgan Hellkite or Sarkhan the Masterless or Shifting Ceratops or Biogenic Ooze or Ravager Wurm if we wanted to, but that does not seem like how we win matches.

Unfortunately our mana does not support Vivien, Arkbow Ranger. We no longer have enough food for Wicked Wolf.

I don’t think there is much to change in the main – you can change the number of Colossus to suit the situation, but either this set of cards works or it doesn’t, given that Lovestruck Beast is not where you want to be, and three toughness on Bonecrusher Giant also is not where I want to be given Clarion even if Nissa and Oko fade away. I haven’t tried Grumgully, the Generous but I doubt it’s good enough. Thrash // Threat is not impossible, but I think power levels have become too high for that approach.

The sideboard could consider Sorcerous Spyglass, and generally has plenty of room if we find worthwhile things. The issue is that you need the deck to stay mostly as it is, which is why we tune to find the right creatures rather than considering transformational or hate cards. Veil of Summer is the exception because it is too good not to play.

Will this be good enough in the new world? We don’t know. We don’t even know what the new world will ban. All I can report is that Goblin Blade is viable relatively high up the Mythic ladder, it is fun as hell, and it gets to play some messed up Magic cards to their fullest.

 

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