Chasing Chandra and Courting Koth

I love to brew. The nature of my job rarely allows me time to play Magic, let alone brew decks, but in my down time (when I have it), I like to sling the cards. I used to wish to qualify for the Pro Tour, but I realized that I wanted it for the wrong reasons — when I look at Magic, I see money. That’s when I decided trading was for me. I put down my sleeves and my cards and my dice and picked up my binder. I’ve never looked back.

Today, I want to return to my roots. I am not a strategy columnist. I cannot dissect the current metagame down to the 75th card and set odds for matchups. I don’t know what the latest hotness is, but I’ve been playing Magic for 16 years and have seen it all. There are a lot of underlying principles that never change, and despite the fact that we often reinvent the wheel in deck building, these principles are pretty much like Newton’s Laws of Magic, except poorly defined.

This thought process brought me back to finance, as it seems all roads in my life lead to the bank. This is a first-world problem for sure. I love undervalued assets, and in the vein of Warren Buffett, a good long look at the technical side of things can reveal them quickly. My gaze turned to mythic rares, specifically planeswalkers. I hate speculating on mythics, but underpriced mythics are a different ballgame. So with my speculative gaze, I looked at the mythics that no one was playing.

Sorin Markov was $10, and sees no play. Hmm. If he did see play, he’d be sure to hit $20, as he’s a Vampire by flavor and we all know what those twinkle-toed Twilight fans think about Vampires. I went down that path, and considered the stipulations. What sort of deck can support a mana cost of 3BBB? It’ll have to be either mono-black, or a control deck, which could filter its mana base into the appropriate colors. That’s certainly plausible, but when you cast him, what do you get? I prefer to focus on the + effects of Planeswalkers, because loyalty counters are a form of tempo and card advantage. Thus, the – effect must be superbly useful, since it is usually invalidating the potential for the ultimate ability (Gideon Jura and Sarkhan the Mad excepted). Sorin’s + ability is unremarkable. A 4 point life swing on an opponent is nice, but when you are paying 6 mana to Shock a creature, you feel stupid. His negative ability is absurd in formats that don’t start your life at 20, but rarely good enough for the kind of decks that could run Sorin. If you want a [/card]Mindslaver[/card] effect, just play Mindslaver, which does the same thing and is easier to cast. I suppose you could play both, but that seems both expensive and sadistic, considering the other options in the six hole. Sorin was quickly voted off Reid Island.

Gideon Jura was underrated, but then Squadron Hawk showed up. While Gideon was always good, he just got noticed again. He was out too. Damn, I love me some Gideon. But he’s not a good speculation, especially on MTGO, where he doubled overnight. Son of a…moving right along. Jace’s incarnations all see play. They’re out too. Ajani Goldmane has potential, especially with Elspeth Tirel, but the lack of good early token producers had me concerned. The best token cards were in the five and six mana spots, which is far, far too late for any real damage to occur. This is a concept I wanted to explore but the thought experiment didn’t lead anywhere worthwhile. In the process, however, I noticed a fun card I have wanted to play with for a month now:Kuldotha Rebirth. Given that we have two very playable artifacts for free — Everflowing Chalice and Memnite – we can make a case for the little guys. Three dudes for one mana and two cards is fine by me. Despite Evan Erwin’s protest that three dudes aren’t enough, I decided to keep this card front and center, since it has many excellent interactions in this format. That decision led me to red, land of the unloved planeswalkers.

Welcome to the Land of the Unloved Planeswalkers

When was the last time a red planeswalker got any love? Ajani Vengeant was fantastic, and I believe he’ll be a superb answer to Mind Sculptors in Extended. Decks are going to have to learn to fateseal first, brainstorm second, because 4 mana to kill the best card in the format, gain 3 life, and keep a PW on the board is a deal with which I can agree. In Standard, however, none of the red planeswalkers get any respect. Chandra Nalaar shows up as a 1- or 2-of in some decks, as does Koth of the Hammer, but no one has successfully built decks around these cards as they have with Jace, The Mind Sculptor. I set out to change that, focusing on Koth of the Hammer and going from there.

Now that I had a locus to build my deck around, I looked at Koth carefully to dissect what it is he does really well. I wanted to use the 80-20 principle to break him down. That is to say, what does he do significantly better and easier than other Magic cards? The answer was simple. He ramps mana better than anything outside of the color green, and he does so while providing an exceptional “option” play that turns a basic Mountain into a 4/4 haste creature that doesn’t die to Condemn. Well, the mountain dies;Koth does not. I play 20+ mountains and 4 Koths;I can eat a few Condemns.

Now that I knew what Koth did, I looked for other cards that supported this. To find these cards, I looked at likely scenarios in which Koth would produce variable amounts of mana, with a bias towards his +1 ability. Koth’s ultimate is completely absurd, and will end a game immediately when you untap with it. No deck alive can beat it, unless you are already almost dead. Let’s break it down into cases. I decided that a deck using 22+ Mountains was the only acceptable way to use Koth, but this turned out to be false. I only learned this after many games with the Hebrew Hammer, so most of my work today is based on the partially false assumption. Koth decks just care about having a few mountains, but are much more interested in lands that do not come in tapped. I played a single Valakut to get cute, and it lost me a game. I almost tore the damn thing in half.

By the way, a Turn 3 Koth was basically The Nuts â„¢. In my ideal game, I would play a mana accelerant on Turn 2 to propel me into a Turn 3 Koth. At that point, I had access to the following, mutually exclusive options.

1. Attack with a 4/4. This turned out to be the most important ability by far. In football terms, a Turn 3 Koth sending in the 4/4 was like a professional full-back tearing apart an inexperienced college defense. Most decks just have no idea what to do when they are facing down a Turn 5 Koth ultimate and a 4/4 every turn until then. The decks that can handle this rush rarely survive it in good shape.

2. Use the 4/4 mountain to make another red mana. This was almost never necessary, but the times it did, it nearly won me the game. Using Koth to just make an extra mana while building towards his ultimate was really satisfying. It was usually the fourth or fifth turn that saw me using this ability, since it helped me transition quickly to a late game. Again, in football terms, this transition was analogous to what an NFL team will do once their opponent figures out their running game; they go to the air. Koth was as devastating as a mana ramp option as he was as a beater. When I realized that red’s best mana accelerants were Iron Myr and Everflowing Chalice, a Turn 3 Koth making a single red mana let me cast my pet card Kuldotha Rebirth. The deck was coming together! Before anyone suggests it, I tried to make Mox Opal work, but nothing made it happen.

3. Use his -2 ability to generate large mana. Looking at a Turn 3 Koth, which is feasible around once a match if my numbers are right, you could either make three mana and leave him at single loyalty, or you can make 7-8 mana on Turn 4 and cast something huge and scary. Looking at the first option, it seems like a Kuldotha Rebirth on your Myr or Chalice and a Goblin Bushwhacker is pretty nasty. To be honest, though, I found that simply swinging with a 4/4 was almost as good, required no expenditure of resources on your part, and still hit like a truck. I rarely executed the -2 ability to make more guys. I wanted to focus on the power of this ability, since eight mana on Turn 4 with two spells is absurd. Keeping in mind the other two uses, +1 mana or a 4/4 guy, I set out to build a deck.

Key Concept 1 – Mana Ramp. Koth’s main boon is that he puts you into an endgame mana position as early as Turn 4. For this concept we’ll focus on uses for this mana. I looked at cards like Chandra Ablaze, who could easily come out on Turn 4 with the right draws, and almost always saw a Turn 5 cast when she was in the hand. I also looked at Nalaar, but she never made it into the deck in testing. The original Chandra would likely make the cut if I rebuilt it today. I also looked at Destructive Force, which is a game-ender on Turn 4 with an active Koth.

Key Concept 2 – Early Pressure. Early pressure makes the 4/4 option play so much scarier. In a deck that can often Turn 1 a Kuldotha Rebirth and Turn 3 a Koth, early pressure can keep our worst matchups on their heels. Using Rebirth as the main focal point, I realized that this could also be a deck that relied on haste creatures. Wanting to get the maximum value out of my Rebirths to offset the loss of an addition card, usually a mana accelerant, I decided to make this a Bushwhacker deck. Coming back to Key Concept 1, I played around with Eldrazi Monument to complement the Bushwhacker package. I could feed Monument with my Rebirths, and once I got low on guys, I could always cash in the Monument for…more guys! This sounded ideal.

What I had was a deck that had an absurd early game, using a Goblin package focused on efficiency and haste, and yet had a late game that could swing with the best of them. Destructive Force is pretty insane until Turn 9 or so. Chandra Ablaze let us refill our hand every turn, though it was difficult to reliably use her + ability with so many artifacts in the deck. When she was good, she was insane-really, totally insane. Her -2 ability once emptied a control deck’s hand of 6, reloaded my empty hand, and then proceeded to dominate the game. Despite this, I still managed to run out of gas and lose. She was barely cutting it, even though she felt ridiculously powerful. The truth is that Jace does almost everything she does but better.

My deck list looked something like this:

4 Koth of the Hammer
5 Big Red Spells
8-10 Mana Accelerants (some combination of Myrs and Chalices)
4 Memnite
4 Goblin Bushwhacker
4 Goblin Guide
3-4 Goblin Chieftain
22 Mountain

There were some flexible slots, as you can see. I hate deck lists, because they represent a snapshot of an otherwise “living” deck. I could give you definite lists, as I have them, but they truly only tell a small piece of the story.

Cards in the flex slots included Goblin Ruinblaster, who was ridiculous whenever he showed up, Burst Lightning (to take advantage of big mana), Eldrazi Monument, Chandra Ablaze, Destructive Force and various other burn spells. The Ruinblasters owned the control matchups, because they were every bit as good as a Turn 3 Koth on the play. He was also integral in giving us game against Valakut decks, which were otherwise difficult to out-race.

The best innovation by far was the inclusion of Iron Myr. Here he was, in all his glory! A 1/1 for 2 that tapped for red, Iron Myr was everything this deck wanted to be. His ability to accelerate us a turn was crucial, and I always wanted one in the opener.-so much, in fact, that I added 2 off-color Myr, and eventually went to 2 Chalices to support a full eight accelerants. Ten mana accelerants was way too much, but I even eventually cut the eight back down to six. Six seemed about right, ensuring I mostly got one when I needed one. They increased the potency of Goblin Bushwhacker, fed Eldrazi Monument, accelerated me into my big spells, and turned into Goblins when I no longer needed them. They were, without a doubt, the best card in the deck.

I came to a screeching halt with my progress after moving my testing to include many hours of MTGO. There was one issue with the deck; it had no way to filter its draws beyond Chandra Ablaze, and she was sporadic at best at doing so. While the concepts were supremely powerful and the deck was a fun play, it was having trouble closing people out. Were I preparing for a major event, I’d have continued to push it, but I did not feel it had the potential to get much better. I am certain a more talented player and deck builder would post a winning record with this deck, since it does powerful things, but I could never get it to run consistently. The triple Myr draw was infuriating, and I often found myself praying to Johnny Rungood to top deck a given card. The issue was that I never asked for the same card more than a few times; it was always something different. Sometimes it was a Myr, sometimes I needed a Mountain, or sometimes I just needed to peel a Koth. Because of this, I knew the best course of action was to just abandon the deck.

But just because we don’t have a new Standard staple after hours upon hours of work doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything. In my attempts to play some under-used planeswalkers, I have learned a tremendous amount about what makes them work and what does not. This level of understanding is vital to traders, since you can make a technical analysis of a card with much more precision if you can understand its role in the game. Please leave the theory-craft at home; I cannot stand when people espouse tool shed wisdom about cards they have rarely played with or against. The reason many of these cards are unused or unpopular is because 95% of Magic players would rather sound correct than be correct. That makes them vain and foolish, but it means the 5% who know how to divest their ego from their outcomes will blow away the rest in competition. I relish the chance to be wrong, because it means that I can easily correct the problem at hand and end up better off than I was before. It’s great to be wrong, because you can easily become right!

The short story here is that Koth of the Hammer is a ridiculously powerful card with a myriad of applications and no home. I refuse to believe that he will remain underplayed for the 24 months he is legal in Standard. With cards like this, it pays to have specific data about what the planeswalker can and cannot do. When you find yourself saying, “He’d be so good if only we had a ______ effect in Standard,” first, we probably do. When I asked for a Guttural Response in Standard, Gatherer answered me back with Ricochet Trap. It hijacks countermagic so well and so unexpectedly that it feels like cheating. There are many semi-obscure cards still in Standard, so it is possible that the effect you are looking for exists in some form.

This also happened in a black Vampires deck I was building in which I needed a copy of Grave Pact. I located Butcher of Malakir, which is a seven mana Grave Pact on one hell of a big stick. He actually won me a game against an Eldrazi Monument deck with 20+ Wolf tokens on the board. I hear a 300/300 lifelink Viscera Seer makes a great beat stick. Ten turns of Bloodghast sacrifice and recursion and his army was dead- I then killed him from 1000+ life in two turns. The cards exist, and you’re probably just missing them.

When we know what a card needs to be playable, something called our Reticular Activation System takes over. Ever notice how, when someone says a weird word, you suddenly hear it everywhere? What’s really happening is that your memory and consciousness are emphasizing that word, so you remember it more easily. This is the same concept- if you are looking for a given effect, you are much more likely to find it. I know now what it will take to make Koth good; any form of big red card advantage.

I hope you’ve found the deconstruction of my thought experiments useful. I know this deviates from my usual essays, but I find this concept thrilling and really enjoyed working with the deck. Though I did not win any major events with it, I still think it has potential in the hands of the right deck builder. Koth isn’t a great speculation yet, and Chandra Ablaze isn’t really, either. I’d take a close look at the current sets and single out a few really powerful or quirky cards by asking what they’ll need to become relevant Tier 1 cards. This kind of thinking can put you days ahead of other speculators. Look at the cards that feel good in Constructed but are still seeing no use. Previous examples include Frost Titan, Oracle of Mul Daya, Avenger of Zendikar and Necrotic Ooze. When these cards hit, they hit big. Have a great holiday, my dear readers, and may the new year find you healthy, happy, and ready for change. 2011 is going to be a landmark year for Magic: The Gathering, so I’ll see you then!

  1. I got lucky on my first booster and ended up with a Koth. So being on a budget I added two Chandra Nalaar, and some Chandra’s Spitfire. I have the Chalice, and have also been playing with using proliferate on the planeswalkers using Inexorable Tide and Contagion Clasp. Getting the Tide up early can pump up a Koth or Chandra to critical mass fairly quickly.

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  3. The only problem with this is that the Koth’s +1 ability still creates mountains with summoning sickness, so you can’t attack with them, and you can’t tap them for mana while they are a creature.