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No Clue Brew: Crashing with Kiora’s Bounty

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I have no idea what the hell I'm doing.

I'm not a Standard player.  I haven't played FNM lately.  I haven't PTQ'ed in years, and my best finish was a 7-1-1 9th place at a Star City Open some time in 2010.  I made Day 2 at a Grand Prix once, during which I got crushed 0-3.  So why in the name of the Gods am I writing an article on Standard decks and strategy?   Because I love to brew, that's why - and I don't do enough of it.

I had lunch with our own Jason Alt the other day and pitched him the idea for a column about brewing Standard from the eyes of someone who's not biased by deep metagame knowledge of the current format.  Such a lack of knowledge is inexcusable for a competitive player but for someone like me, whose goal is merely amusement, inexperience can lead to creative discoveries that would otherwise be lost in the bias of expertise.  That's why I've called this column No-Clue Brew; I want to turn this ignorance into literary bliss by seeing the format through a fresh set of eyes.

So why don't I play Standard anymore?  The truth is, I don't have the time to play competitive Magic.  There was a time when I did nothing but play Standard.  It was a dark time in my life.  I had almost no money and lived in a town where I knew no-one.  This was during the days of $500 5 Color Control, with its Cryptic Commands and Reflecting Pools.  I could afford nothing more than a Mono-Red deck where the most expensive card was Figure of Destiny, but my abject lack of employment allowed me to test the deck at least 4 hours a day.

After tuning the deck to perfection by optimizing it to kill, on average, a turn faster than other Mono-Red decks, I invested the rest of my pitiful savings into entry fees and played every Standard tournament within half an hour's drive each week.  For a year of my life, I sustained myself by winning packs and trading cards.

Those dark days are long gone, along with any real skill I may have had as a competitive player, but the urge to brew remains.  I'm honestly not that excited about Standard right now; the linearity of Devotion-based strategies is unbelievably strong and does not inspire much creativity.

It's important for Standard to have linear strategies so new players can jump right into the format, but it bores the crap out of me as a deck builder.  My goal when brewing is not to find the most optimal deck to bring to a competitive event.  My goal is to build around a card or interaction that sparks my creative urges and then locate the most optimal way to express that interaction.

Born of the Gods didn't really excite me.  The God cards are all interesting, though unremarkable.  Aside from being under-costed and hard-to-kill creatures, their abilities are not game-breaking.  Phenax, God of Deception may be my favorite because I'm kind of stupid for Mill strategies, but he still has the dreaded "tap" symbol which limits his utility somewhat.

Ephara, God of the Polis is a glorified Howling Mine.  Mogis, God of Slaughter is one of the oft-maligned Browbeat type cards that never quite does what you need it to do.  Karametra, God of Harvests is a Rampant Growth, although they quite easily could have pushed her power level to allow for any kind of land, basic or not.

Frankly, the only Gods in the block that impress me are Thassa, God of the Sea and Purphoros, God of the Forge.  I'm hoping that the Journey into Nyx Gods are worth a damn, considering that my two favorite guilds have yet to be represented.

Anyone who's drafted RTR with me knows I'm a fool in love for Izzet decks, and the combination of mana acceleration and card draw from Simic is too alluring to resist.  It should come as no surprise, then, that I'm choosing to focus on the Simic Planeswalker as my Build-Around-Me muse.

Enter Kiora, the Crashing Wave

Let's get all the garbage out of the way first.  Yes, Kiora would be a better card if she cost one fewer mana, 1UG. Yes, she "dies to removal."  Yes, she'd be better with a starting loyalty of 3 instead of 2.  All of these things are true for every card in Magic.

Facts are facts, and we must work with the card as it's printed.  Kiora is deceptively good.  If she started with 3 loyalty or cost 1 fewer mana, she would not be a well-balanced card; her {-1} ability might be the best Planeswalker ability ever printed, and activating it twice without dying would not be fair.  But let's start with the first one.

Kiora's {+1} ability passes my primary Planeswalker test: can it intelligently defend itself against a single threat if played on an empty board?  Yup.  Kiora can blank almost every creature in Magic by applying a temporary Gaseous Form.

Kiora's {-1} ability is the most tempting to build around, as one can easily imagine a scenario in which you play a billion lands and somehow win the game.  Sadly, paying 4 mana just to fire off this ability twice seems very expensive.  There is no guarantee that you'll have enough extra lands to make the best use of this long-form Divination, so building an entire deck around "playing extra lands" is a fool's errand.

My first attempt to use Kiora was looking at Maze's End and Gate-based strategies, but I decided I didn't want to build a deck in which all my lands showed up tapped.  As we say in New York, fuggedaboutit.

Releasing the Kraken for {-5} seems like the way to win with Kiora.  This is one of the few Planeswalker ultimates that come close to You Win The Game.  The fact that it can be activated on Kiora's 3rd turn makes it surprisingly accessible, not to mention totally irreversible.  Unlike some Planeswalkers, Kiora's plus-loyalty ability directly affects her ability to survive until the critical turn, no matter how big and dangerous the threat.  Indeed, the biggest threat to Kiora's survival is a swarm of minor threats, such as Brimaz tokens, Pack Rats and haste creatures.

Once I decided that I wanted to play towards Kiora's Kraken emblem, it became clear that this would need to be a control deck capable of buying time and protecting the queen.  I came upon Whelming Wave after reading sideboarding article by Brian Judkins, in which he called it "the closest thing to a mono-blue Wrath" that we'll see in this block.

There are some cards you don't want to bounce, like Gray Merchant of Asphodel, but the Wave can really screw up an opponent's plans for reaching Devotion.  If you're bouncing unfavorable targets like the Merchant, plan around it and/or save a counterspell.

Most crucially, Wave deals with the indestructible Gods.  Setting an opponent up to walk right into an Annul can be a devastating tempo swing, and late in the game you may catch them off-guard with Syncopate as well.

Between Kiora keeping their best creature on ice and Whelming Wave waiting in the wings, the opponent will need to find a frustrating balance between over- and under-extending their board.  Wave's interaction with Kiora's ultimate is generally going to be win-more, but in the rare cases it matters, it will be back-breaking and spectacular.

In Which I Attempt To Find A Strategy

With those two cards as the shell of the deck, I wanted to start looking at favorable synergies.  Even though the game plan wants to revolve around Krakens, Magic games don't always go according to plan.  In some cases, Kiora will never reach her ultimate because it will be more profitable to alternate icing a creature and casting Explore.  Sitting on a card advantage engine that protects itself can be a game-winning strategy unto itself.  It's unlikely that each activation of {-1} will correspond to an extra land drop, so that was the first hole I wanted to patch.

There are two cards I discovered that serve this purpose.  The first is Gatecreeper Vine.  It's is not exactly a defensive standout, but for two mana, it's hard to get much more efficient.  The only thing that came close was Sylvan Caryatid, but I really liked the idea of thinning my deck and making sure I always had extra lands in my hand for Kiora.

I also liked that Vine gets me yet another land after Whelming Wave; when I play control decks, I want to hit a land drop every single turn until the end of the game.  Sadly, post-build testing proved that Gatecreeper Vine was not the droid I was looking for and he did not make the cut.

The second card is the phenomenal Courser of Kruphix. A 2/4 body at CMC 3 is a great deal.  We want creatures that can block effectively and Courser does precisely that.  Considering this is a defensive deck, his Landfall trigger is particularly welcome.  We need all the longevity we can get, so this ability stacks up nicely alongside a 4-toughness blocker and Kiora's ice.

The Future Sight for Lands ability is generally underwhelming but when Kiora can both clear the top card of your deck and enable another land drop, we've got the basis for a real engine.  I am also not afraid to cast multiples, as the landfall trigger stacks and I'm not over-exposed to Bile Blight.

Gatecreeper vine ended up being too small and too slow, and this is when Sylvan Caryatid started looking pretty good.  While it has absolutely no synergy with the Courser Kiora engine, it's a cheap blocker that accelerates and fixes mana.  Good enough.  Including a few of these will ensure that I always have a turn 2 play, and will also help keep Kiora alive.

I wanted to shore up the defenses with another 2-drop blocker and I saw no better card than Omenspeaker.  Deck manipulation is particularly valuable in this build and the synergy with Whelming Wave ends up being very powerful.  There's not much else to explain about Omenspeaker's inclusion; it's exactly the card I wanted in my 2-spot.  Each time I cast this card I like it more - something I got to do frequently on account of Whelming Wave.

Once the mana engine and defensive line were in place, there was only one thing left to add to make this a real control deck:  Counterspells.  I already had access to life gain, extra mana, blockers, and card selection. There are a wide variety of counterspells in the format, so I decided to explore a mix of each until testing proved some to be better than others.  Annul does an absurd amount of work for a single blue mana, and it's safe to assume that there will be a live target for it in a majority of pre-sideboard games.   The same is true of Dispel, and I ultimately decided I'd rather pack that in the starting lineup over Annul.

I like to have a hard counter in every control deck, and Dissolve fits flawlessly.  Syncopate is versatile and takes advantage of the deck's potential to generate extra mana.  Simic Charm is not a true counterspell, but giving everything you control Hexproof for the turn serves a similar function.

Its other two modes (Giant Growth and Unsummon) both play powerful roles in a defensively-minded deck like this.  The Giant Growth mode turns all of your fat-butt blockers into real threats, and I take particular glee in how dangerous Sylvan Caryatid suddenly becomes.

With the control shell solidified, I wanted more mana acceleration and some early threats.  Kiora's Follower is a no-brainer here, and requires no further explanation.  8 2-drop mana guys seems like plenty.  I considered Elvish Mystic to attempt a live-the-dream scenario with a turn 2 Courser, but I ultimately decided that I needed to give this deck an early game instead of trying to ramp.  Future iterations of the deck may prove more mana-hungry, so it might be correct to shave numbers on things like Sylvan Caryatid to make room for a 4-pack of Elves.  We shall see.

That's when I found Shambleshark.  It fits in the mana curve flawlessly, it permits versatile play because of Flash, and every other creature in the deck Evolves it.  He even has synergy with Whelming Wave, since you can cast him and then reply all your Omenspeakers.  An early, unexpected threat that can come out of nowhere and hit hard is exactly what we needed.  We're gonna need a bigger boat.

Mutiny on the Bounty

After deciding to use a mix of the reactive cards mentioned above, there was still room in the deck for an alternative win condition; crucial in a deck whose only current path to victory is Planeswalk and Pray.  A very deep delve into Standard's card pool uncovered a card which seems, at first glance, to be absurdly powerful for its mana cost - Primeval Bounty.

This enchantment looks to be everything I want.  My creatures are all cheap and efficient so triggering 3/3 beasts is easy ( especially after a Whelming Wave has put all your Omenspeakers back on your bench ).  Casting a spell becomes a liability for your opponent because each counterspell comes with a permanent Giant Growth ( as does casting Kiora ).

And good luck beating a deck like this that gains multiple life with each land drop.  Primeval Bounty may actually turn out to be the best win condition the deck can muster, and works beautifully alongside the rest of the deck's engine.

The mana base needs to be honed through testing, as all good mana bases do.  Because the deck is heavy on 2-drops and 4-drops, I want to play a 4-pack of our Scry land, Temple of Mystery.  The lack of 3-drops removes the sting of regret that comes from ETB Tapped lands, as I play enough basic lands to ensure I can almost always hit an untapped land when I need it.  Early testing reminded me that it's sometimes better to sit on a Scry land until later in the game, when you have a better idea of what cards you're looking for.

I also need the versatility of our Shock land, Breeding Pool and we can absolutely afford to pay the life when necessary.  A pair of Simic Guildgates might be unnecessary, but I'd rather have the mana fixing slow me down than choke on a color, especially with cards like Whelming Wave that cost UU.

So, after all this theory crafting and blowing of hot air, here's the starting sixty I came up with.

Deck List: Kiora's Bounty

The contents of your bench will depend entirely on how your matchups shake out, what's locally popular, and just how much you hate that one guy at your shop that plays that one stupid deck.  I am a fan of optimizing your reactive cards (Gainsay vs Annul, for example) as opposed to just jamming stuff that "seems good" like Skylasher, but I can see a mono blue deck removing its trousers to a giant Mistcutter Hydra out of nowhere.  I particularly love Pithing Needle right now, as it shuts down so many of the best cards in the game.

Remember, if your opponent puts Underworld Connections on a Swampyou can just name Swamp.  The enchantment bestows its ability onto the land, and Pithing Needle doesn't mind attacking lands; it just can't stop mana abilities.

Unravel the Aether (also known as Unravel Your Editor, because of that stupid AE character) is probably a bad Annul, but I see a lot of value in the surprise factor of nuking a God mid-combat or at the EOT. I'm eager to hear other ideas for the sideboard, as it's never been my strong suit in deck building.

One Last Thing...

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18 thoughts on “No Clue Brew: Crashing with Kiora’s Bounty

  1. This deck is nice. I am going to start testing this. If there’s anything here, we might have the drop on Standard while everyone is looking at Modern this weekend. Thanks for writing!

  2. This deck needs more removal if it’s too be competitive, Matt. Plummet from the board is great against nightveil and desecration demon (whom you can feed for a turn or two until you can get him locked with Kiora or fed with Bounty.

    I dug through standard UG cards a half dozen times and found almost no answers. I was considering a white splash for sphinx’s revelation and some assorted removal, as well as more Scry lands (which are nuts in this deck) but I wanted to focus on getting the shell right first.

    Ultimately I am not sure what to cut for a splash color, maybe tighten up the counterspell package so we don’t have to Dissolve big threats…though I do love me some dissolve.

  3. Pokukranos might be the card I am looking for. I would need to cut a atomic charm for cyclonic rift, and maybe something else. Love the toolbox that this deck is quickly becoming.

    Matt, what is currently good in block constructed? I build decks like this around interacting with the top cards in the format ( whelming wave is a horse against pack rat…)

  4. As a thought, why not add Elite Arcanist and Triton Tactics into the mix.

    They have synergy with Sylvan Caryatid, Kiora’s Follower, *and* a distinct possibility to drop a Dissolve Combo as well…

    Add Prophet of Kruphix, and you cause spell countering every turn (opponents and yours) including triggering the Primeval Bounty ability.

  5. For extra sideboard shenanigans… Drop a couple of Phenax, God of Deception.

    Get the Elite Arcanist going with a Triton tactics + Sylvan Caryatid. (save 4 mana)

    Rinse and repeat until both of them are mega huge blockers… Drop Phenax, tap a mega.. GG

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