The Certainty of Vivien
- Gianluca Aicardi
A minor subtheme of Ikoria seems to be the cheating of permanents from the library directly onto the battlefield, also known as what Grafdigger's Cage doesn't want you to do. Lukka proceeds onward to higher mana costs, while the new Vivien takes the opposite approach. Let's see how efficiently and to what end.
Ikoria's main heroine Vivien Reid just doesn't allow for bad designs to be made in her name. If we exclude her Planeswalker Deck incarnations, as we obviously should, Vivien's first three planeswalker cards looked as follows.
I mean, maybe none of these were ever in danger of requiring a ban like Oko, Thief of Crowns did, but is there even one among them that could ever be called a failure? Or that didn't see at least some amount of competitive play? For comparison, and to remain within the purview of monogreen, the first three Nissas, only counting the ones that start as planeswalkers, were these:
While Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is a fine card, and Nissa, Worldwaker had its moments, Nissa Revane was an absolute stinker that immediately hit the bargain bin in a time when planeswalkers still maintained some "awe" factor about them. Arguably none of these early Nissas can compare to any of the first three Viviens. Playing up an imaginary rivalry between the two green ladies, we can envision the new Vivien, Monsters' Advocate as a challenge to Nissa, Who Shakes the World, the best incarnation the Elf animist has obtained so far. Both cost 5 mana, both make 3/3 creatures, and both double the efforts of the player controlling them, albeit in very different ways.
Aside from her straightforward work as a token generator, the Vivien who's visiting Ikoria has two ways to create advantage in a creature deck; unlike her frenemy Lukka, she definitely wants to be surrounded by creatures, which has been a constant in all the previous Vivien incarnations as well. The static ability, which recalls some of War of the Spark's lower-rarity planeswalkers, mimics Vizier of the Menagerie, or, if you want, Future Sight for creatures. It enables us to use the top of the library as an extra card in hand, as long as there's a creature to cast up there. This can lead to explosive turns, and it's less easily disrupted than the Vizier was back in Amonkhet.
Finally, the minus produces the already mentioned cheating-into-play effect, able to search up any creature with a lower casting cost than the one we just cast. It's important to note that the fetched critter will enter the battlefield first, while the hardcast one is still waiting on the stack. This allows for some neat tricks, like having God-Eternal Rhonas feed Vivien's delayed trigger to search for Questing Beast, then join the hasty three-headed monster on the board, doubling its power right away for an 8-damage swing out of nowhere.
Vivien's whole package is undoubtedly alluring — she can defend herself and build up our amount of threats working from several angles. Now only remains to be seen what Standard concoctions we can put together that are best equipped to exploit her abilities.
She Does the Monster Mash
One first attempt finds Vivien within a monogreen Stompy shell, which gives us the chance to check back on the current health of a beloved archetype that hasn't been extremely competitive in a while.
|Standard Vivien Stompy|
|Main Deck||Side Deck|
Stompy builds are always all about the perfect curve, so we begin here with the by now familiar one-two-three of Pelt Collector, Barkhide Troll, and Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig, the greatest hits of any monogreen build with Vivien, Arkbow Ranger as the main focus. The 4-mana Vivien still shares centerpiece duty with her more expensive self, providing evasion and removal, with the assistance of ultimate bite spell Ram Through as a strong backup.
The rest of the list mostly leverages the Monsters' Advocate's capacity to enable a toolbox. At three, one copy of the legendary Yorvo is happily shed in favor of Crystalline Giant, an entertaining card that can become a serious threat. Kraul Harpooner takes care of fliers, Questing Beast of planeswalkers, Shifting Ceratops of blue-based decks, and Gemrazer of artifacts and enchantments, despite mutate not really synergizing with new Vivien's fetching routine. Neither is Voracious Hydra, to be honest, but removal in the shape of a big trampler is just too good to pass, same as Nylea, Keen-Eyed in a list that's capable of generating this much devotion.
It's a fair deck for sure, but its performance is enhanced by its amazing consistency. It's also well-suited for best-of-one matches on MTG Arena since it doesn't need to change much in between games. The sideboard takes largely the form of a wishboard for Vivien, Arkbow Ranger — which almost never comes up, but it's still good policy to give her one — with the exception of a few copies of Grafdigger's Cage. Graveyard and library shenanigans are where the meta is at right now.
Advocate of Fires
Adding a second color to a Vivien, Monsters' Advocate deck most likely involves getting into business with Gruul cards. Yes, we're going to deal with a Fires of Invention list once again here. But it's a somewhat peculiar one: Aggro Fires!
|Standard Gruul Fires|
This newfangled archetype is making the rounds in competitive play at the moment, and I can't find a consensus on its ideal composition yet, likely because the possible choices are so many, and some of them are going to boil down to personal tastes. I, for one, had some issues with its weak early turns, so I decided to increase the ramp by providing some extra help to poor, overworked Arboreal Grazer. Now, this is a deck that employs Kaheera, the Orphanguard as a companion — and the unspoken rule is: if you're not too far from qualifying for a companion, go for it — which means Paradise Druid is out of the picture. But Leafkin Druid is still viable, ready to be turned by Kaheera into a fearsome 1/4 that can attack and tap for mana, as if it were one of Nissa's Elemental lands.
What Fires of Invention does in conjunction with the Monsters' Advocate is engineering a turn where you drop Vivien, minus her, then cast your second spell in the form of a creature. Thus Vivien will give you another one for free, which means you're up one permanent compared to the output of regular Fires decks in the same spot. This is probably a turn five, though, since, unfortunately, nonland accelerators don't increase Fires of Invention's scope — only Grazer might. Which is why Questing Beast and Shifting Ceratops hold the fort at four, to guarantee a somewhat impactful follow-up in the same turn Fires gets online. If it gets online earlier thanks to Leafkin Druid, Thrashing Brontodon is present in a generous capacity — still plenty of targets for it, between Wilderness Reclamation, Witch's Oven, Lucky Clover, Elspeth Conquers Death, and of course other Fires of Invention — while Kaheera is always available to drop. At five, Cavalier of Flame and Quartzwood Crasher are the high-end plays of choice, with Skarrgan Hellkite as another valid option that plays well with Fires. A couple of Embercleaves are also included, because we're still a Gruul deck after all, and Fires of Invention doesn't prevent you from casting spells at instant speed during your turn, an opportunity other Fires builds rarely take advantage of.
The land base is quantitatively ample, due to the importance of Grazer acceleration in the early turns — which, at the very least, could lead to turn-two Kaheera or Gemrazer — and how crucial it is not to miss any land drop until the fifth is reached. The star land is Bonders' Enclave, the deck's Castle Vantress, giving us a place to sink our mana into once we have an active Fires. Refueling can be a key factor in Gruul lists, and Enclave draws you the much-needed extra ammo. All provided you have a 4-powered creature on the board, which you're bound to have, since it's pretty much the size of all your non-ramp creatures.
Some maindeck removal might be warranted, especially Scorching Dragonfire. It has the advantage of being able to hit planeswalkers while also stopping graveyard recursion — though catching a Cauldron Familiar off-guard is going to be tricky. Alternatively, Fire Prophecy can assist Cavalier of Flames in getting rid of useless accelerators or redundant copies of Questing Beast.
So, is this a fun deck? It is, very much. Dropping a Crasher and a Cavalier for free while Vivien fetches Questing Beast, then watching as this assorted group of monsters rampage all over the opponent at once is a great Timmy/Tammy feeling. Now for the bad news: Unlike Lukka Fires, the Gruul version is firmly a tier-two list at best, and its issues are evident while playing it in the current meta.
Here's a few: the mana is sketchy, the required taplands endanger the board development in the first few turns when we don't have a turn-one Grazer; Fires into Brontodon on turn three is not that impressive, especially in the face of Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft; Fires into Ceratops doesn't make for such a perfect turn four either, because it leaves you with no mana to give the eager Dinosaur haste, wasting its ability. There are no real catch-up mechanisms in the deck, no Deafening Clarion or a reliable sweeper to reset the board when things go south, just some copies of Storm's Wrath in the sideboard, which is not always enough; neither lifegain from Kenrith, the Returned King nor Agent of Treachery to reorganize the board in your favor. And, in what may well be the worst flaw for what is at the core still an aggro deck, the sheer amount of lands required to enable Grazer — 28 in some lists! — also reduces the overall threat density. At the same time we have no Growth Spiral to accelerate our land count ahead of schedule, an addition that would feel natural for a Fires of Invention deck that expanded into green territory, yet it's out of Gruul's grasp.
All in all, no, new Vivien is not Nissa. But she's still worth a … shot. If you're seeking a different 5-mana planeswalking experience in green, with or without the thrill of Fires, give the monster-hugging girl a chance.
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