The Oath of the Gatewatch spoilers are upon us, and it seems like every other day Wizards reveals a Modern hopeful. Battle for Zendikar, Oath's universally panned predecessor, is even making waves in the format as Bx Eldrazi Processors continues to pick up steam. New decks don't always come from new cards, though. Modern's vast card pool often ensures the "next big thing" has been sitting in our backyard the whole time pro players complained about format staleness. It took weeks for Bx Eldrazi Processors to take form, months for someone to bring Amulet of Vigor to a real tournament, and years for Tom Ross to grasp the resilience of Phyrexian Crusader. Today, we'll reacquaint ourselves with a creature that slithered into obscurity after Brian Kibler taught us Parseltongue in 2013: Lotus Cobra.
I have a singular interest in disruptive aggro decks, and spend most of my Magic hours with Delvers and Blood Moons. Since Moon often shuts players out of games, Delver more obviously represents interaction. But GRx Blood Moon is highly interactive; turn two Blood Moon just happens to interact so efficiently with the format's top decks that it can seem uninteractive to onlookers. Prerequisite readings concerning the archetype:
The first article describes Abzan Moon, which uses mana dorks to follow Blood Moon with Siege Rhino. The second explores ritual effects in GRx Moon, and explains the archetype's core components. Lotus Cobra's addition brings the explosiveness of ritual decks to a stable, dork-reliant shell.
How to Charm a Snake
In a fetchland format, Lotus Cobra truly lives up to his name. Playing Windswept Heath, cracking it for Forest, and tapping that Forest for green nets three mana - the Snake literally turns each fetchland into Black Lotus. Except with upside, since the Forest sticks around to produce mana later. Even under a Moon, lands produce two mana when they enter the battlefield. Lotus Cobra's "hidden mode" is just being a 2/1, which utility figurehead Snapcaster Mage has taught us is far from trivial. Turning the little dude sideways every turn in lieu of a "real threat" adds up quick, especially as opponents struggle to find basics. With exalted from a Hierarch, Lotus Cobra swings like a Wild Nacatl.
Despite his apparent strength, Lotus Cobra hasn't seen much Modern play; after all, he dies to Lightning Bolt. Granted, the same can be said of many staple two-drops, including Dark Confidant, Young Pyromancer, and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound. But these cards don't require the attention to deckbuilding Lotus Cobra does. In a curve-conscious deck that bets on sticking an early Cobra, losing the Snake to a Bolt can mean some clunky turns. Losing a Confidant? No worries; Jund players live to trade cards with opponents. Pyromancer? That's one less Bolt for my Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration. Jace? Well, that card sucked anyway.
Aether Vial decks, and to an extent Birds of Paradise decks, suffer the same problem as Lotus Cobra ones - failing to stick that crucial enabler makes things pretty awkward. But opponents can't Bolt a Vial, and if they Bolt your Birds, at least you broke even on mana investment. Regardless of these limitations, I believe Cobra can flourish in a supportive shell.
Lotus Cobra wants us to spend a lot of mana. We also need to build in such a way that if the Cobra dies, we can still play a reasonable game of Magic. Stocking up on Birds of Paradise effects helps hit this sweet spot. Mana dorks compete with Cobra for an opponent's precious Lightning Bolts, and going turn one dork, turn two Cobra puts us dramatically ahead of anything else in Modern. Early in my testing, I won a game on turn four with the following sequence:
- Turn 1: Play Forest, play Birds of Paradise.
- Turn 2: Play Lotus Cobra, play Darksteel Citadel, Boomerang our opponent's land.
- Turn 3: Play [tippy title="Oath of Nissa" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] to find a creature or land. Play a fetchland, crack it, play Stormbreath Dragon, attack for six.
- Turn 4: Play a fetchland, crack it, activate monstrosity for X damage, attack for nine.
Turn four wins aren't new to Modern. In fact, the format is built on the premise that decks either win on the fourth turn or disrupt opponents trying to do so. The above scenario still breaks new ground for GRx Moon. Pre-Cobra, the deck could never secure a victory that early while simultaneously disrupting opponents and digging for pieces.
In this and similar scenarios, if our mana dork eats a Lightning Bolt, Cobra comes down on turn two to pick up the slack. If the dork survives, Cobra makes sure we have the biggest start possible: we can cast Cobra, play a fetchland and crack it, and resolve turn two Blood Moon with five mana available for turn three. Cobra also allows late-game lands to fuel monstrosity, chain Lootings, and hardcast Bust. And if opponents save their Bolt for Lotus Cobra, we're likely to have two lands and a dork on the field. That's more than halfway up our curve, which stops at five.
My GRx Moon decks have always stopped curving at four mana. Setting a curve limit lets us maximize Faithless Looting by cycling through any mana source I find beyond my fourth. Lotus Cobra rewards us for playing lands over the course of a game, enabling us to reliably cast five-drops. It also ramps into these expensive spells on the third turn. Subsequently, the Cobra Moon curve stops at five.
I loot Stormbreath Dragon away very aggressively while setting up my mana. But from turn three onwards, we can't draw a better card. Stormbreath Dragon resists Lightning Bolt, Abrupt Decay, and Path to Exile, and can't be chump-blocked by pesky Lingering Souls tokens. If the mana really abounds, we can go monstrous, which generally deals more than the Dragon himself with a Blood Moon on the table to gum up an opponent's hand.
[tippy title="Goblin Dark-Dwellers" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] gives this deck a unique angle of attack. With only 12 potential targets (Boom // Bust, Lightning Bolt, and Faithless Looting), and eight that we even want to target, I capped out at two Dark-Dwellers after trying four, then three. Buying back Bolts is always a pleasure, but we don't need a Snapcaster effect to cast Looting again. The real money maker is Boom // Bust, which can be targeted by Dark-Dwellers at CMC 2 and then cast as Armageddon.
Mass land destruction has infamous roots in aggro decks, dating back to Tom Chanpheng's 1996 Worlds-winning White Weenie. Blowing up all the lands significantly favors the player with the most pressure on the board, since that pressure can easily "get there" as defending opponents struggle to rebuild. Aside from nuking the landscape with his effect, Dark-Dwellers contributes to whatever pressure we've already established with a respectable body. Threatening to "combo" as early as turn three, the Goblin might ask opponents to play differently by slow-rolling their lands. But in a format as curve-dependent as Modern, they rarely have that option.
Life's Simple Pleasures: Destroy Target Land
"Destroy target land" is a line of text as iconic as "Counter target spell" or "Draw three cards," but not nearly as synonymous with tournament success. From a 2002 Wizards article on Ponza, here's Brian David-Marshall succinctly summing up the goofy nostalgia many players associate with land destruction:
Kill their creatures and destroy their lands!… probably one of the oldest strategies in Magic. If you have been playing Magic as long as I have, then you remember the first powerful cards you had four copies of were Stone Rain and Lightning Bolt. Everyone tried to trade for four Sinkholes and if they were successful added them -- and Terror -- to the decks. Unfortunately, back in those prehistoric days we were playing 90+ cards and our decks were likely to also feature Serra Angel, Force of Nature, and Counterspell. Land destruction was good.
BDM's analysis resonates with me. It's a blast to blow up lands! I love the dopey exhilaration of casting Stone Rain in Modern, or slapping Curiosity on Hooting Mandrills, or growing 8/9 Tarmogoyfs. Beyond tickling my funny bone, land destruction has always proved strategically invaluable to GRx Moon, since they deal with the "ones that got away" - basic lands opponents luckily opened or wisely fetched. I've religiously played Molten Rain and Stone Rain in my GRx Moon sideboards since I began working on the archetype some years ago, but I've sometimes pined for them in Game 1. Without a Pillage reprint, Modern has always lacked a land destruction card flexible enough to warrant mainboard inclusion.
The Turning Point
Goblin Dark-Dwellers turns Boom // Bust into a Stone Rain-now, Armageddon-later piece of versatile carnage. Between eight fetchlands and a set of Darksteel Citadel, Boomerang rarely inflicts friendly fire. In my other builds, hardcasting Bust was unrealistic, but Lotus Cobra provides more than enough ramp for the job.
As BDM's anecdote implies, competent Magic players tend to consider land destruction spells "bad." But the clunky sorceries are surprisingly potent in Modern, a format defined as much by speed as by greedy manabases and big-mana decks (Tron, Amulet Bloom, and now Bx Eldrazi Processors). Land destruction also pulls its weight in matchups where Blood Moon kind of sucks, like UR Twin and GR Devotion.
Goyf is Blue? Well, Ponder is Green
At least, that's what Wizards seems to think. Okay, [tippy title="Oath of Nissa" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] isn't quite Ponder. But in some decks, it's close. Between Oath and Faithless Looting, GRx Moon gets more consistency than any non-combo deck in the format.
If You Build It, They Will Cantrip
Unlike Ponder, Nissa's Oath requires savvy (read: not tremendously lazy) deckbuilding to actually replace itself. Since it exclusively hits creatures, planeswalkers, and lands, the enchantment has a chance of whiffing. I've adjusted my sideboard to reflect this caveat, playing findable answers like Spellskite, Liliana of the Veil, and Jace, Architect of Thought over Flame Slash, Engineered Explosives, and my darling Tarfire.
Cantrips improve decks in two ways. For one, we can include fewer lands. Alan Comer's Turbo Xerox teaches us to remove a land for every two cantrips we run, helping us draw more business over the course of a long game. Secondly, we gain selection. In the mid- or late-game, we'd much rather draw [tippy title="Oath of Nissa" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] than a land, since it could become a Goyf or a Stormbreath Dragon. In the early game, we're also happy to draw Oath, since it digs for land. This selection effect lets us include some cards in smaller numbers (like [tippy title="Goblin Dark-Dwellers" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]) and see them anyway. And if Oath finds us something disagreeable, like a land in the late-game, we can still recycle that card with Faithless Looting.
Growing Goyfs and Breaking Rules
[tippy title="Oath of Nissa" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] is a legendary enchantment with a static ability that doesn't scale. Once we've got one on the field, the rest will hit the bin as soon as they resolve. Tarmogoyf benefits greatly from enchantments entering the graveyard like sorceries; whether we can't draw Faithless Looting or simply don't feel like cycling Blood Moon, [tippy title="Oath of Nissa" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] all but guarantees he'll have an enchantment to gnaw on eventually.
It's easy to get caught up in [tippy title="Oath of Nissa" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]'s first ability and to completely ignore the second, which violates one of Magic's fundamental tenets: the color pie. Even under Blood Moon, Oath does a Prismatic Omen impression for planeswalkers only, allowing us to run off-color 'walkers guilt-free. Ajani Vengeant seems like the best option here, since he freezes basic lands or "recovers" with his Lightning Helix effect. Sometimes, aggro opponents get ahead of GRx Moon as we try to fix our mana or set up a play with Faithless Looting. We need our four-drops to bring us back into the game when this happens, and Helix on a planeswalker does exactly that. (So do the Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells' in the sideboard.) My favorite thing about Ajani: he's a removal spell we can find with [tippy title="Oath of Nissa" width="330" height="330"][/tippy]! A pair tested very well initially, but I cut them to pack more mainboard mana sources. Still, it's probably worth keeping Oath's sleeper static ability in mind as the deck develops.
Snaking Right Along
Between [tippy title="Goblin Dark-Dwellers" width="330" height="330"][/tippy] and [tippy title="Oath of Nissa" width="330" height="330"][/tippy], GRx Moon is set to receive a lot of new toys when Oath of the Gatewatch enters Modern at the end of the month. Dark-Dwellers gives us a real incentive to play Lotus Cobra and Boom // Bust, and Oath combines with Faithless Looting to give me the high-velocity, cantrip-heavy experience I crave in Magic. As I continue tweaking, I'll keep the Modern Nexus readership updated on my progress with Cobra Moon. Until then, join me in praying the last ~60 cards of Oath house a sweet surge card for my Delver decks.