You Shall Have Other Gods (Part 2)
- Gianluca Aicardi
The Amonkhet Gods are back, and this time they all seem able to command their share of worship. The hottest new set in recent memory has bestowed all of them (with one exception) a new incarnation worthy of play in Standard. Let's continue our adoration by paying tribute to the esoteric Bontu and the thunderous Ilharg.
As exposed in Part 1, four of the five monocolored Gods from Amonkhet made their return to the fold in War of the Spark, reanimated by Nicol Bolas as the top warriors in his undead army. And lo and behold, most of them are actually seeing play in Standard. Due to fairly aggressive costs and their resilience to exile effects, each of them is a strong candidate for finisher-of-choice in their color. Are they the new (non-teen) Titans, then? Well, some of them look even better than their six-mana counterpart (and it should be noted that none of them actually costs so much). Plus, they're able to recur again and again, while those old M19 Giants would just eventually eat removal and die.
This said, the overall measure of these gods' success is linked to their distinctive non-combat ability. After all, we're firmly in the midrange realm, so the competition for slots is fierce and efficiency matters a lot more when you're investing larger amounts of mana into one card. So let's light a little incense, intone a solemn prayer, and blasphemously be the judges of the virtue of some more gods.
Crocodile Without Tears
The appearance of Bontu was inspired by the Egyptian goddess Sobek, the protector of the Nile, hence the crocodilian form. Although her role on Amonkhet was more related to personal ambition – to the point that she was the one deity who betrayed her siblings and aligned with Bolas, only to be betrayed by the wily dragon in return – you can't out-ambition the most ambitious being in the multiverse.
Bontu the Glorified, her previous card incarnation, was never a favorite. She let you sacrifice a creature for two mana in order to obtain a scry and drain one single point of life. On top of that, you couldn't even attack or block during turns when the sacrifice didn't happen, which might be flavorful as hell, but it's not very practical on the battlefield. Zombie Bontu, on the other hand, has acquired one extra point of power. (She used to traffic in death and mummies after all.) She is ready to rock her menacing body from the very moment she hits the ground. As for sacrifices, she still does those and on a massive scale, but only once – or at least, once each time she re-enters the battlefield postmortem.
God-Eternal Bontu is perhaps the member of this cycle that least requires any specific deck composition. You can just drop her; turn some surplus lands and other expendable permanents into fresh gas; be content having a large menace beater on the board; look forward to performing the card-draw; and mass-sacrifice trick again a few turns after her eventual demise. While this approach of exploiting Bontu as a value creature seems entirely legitimate, it probably won't allow her to make the cut in any black-heavy deck. For one thing, current Standard does not feature an MBC archetype, which would be the ideal home for a God-Eternal Bontu played straight.
So, what about the next logical step: playing Bontu in a pile that doesn't mind sacrifices and in fact benefits from them? There happens to be a perfectly suitable archetype at hand for such shenanigans.
|Mardu Aristocrats by LegenVD|
|4Blood Crypt||4Cruel Celebrant||2Mortify|
|3Clifftop Retreat||4Footlight Fiend||2Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord|
|2Dragonskull Summit||2God-Eternal Bontu|
|4Isolated Chapel||4Hero of Precinct One|
|4Sacred Foundry||4Judith, the Scourge Diva|
|4Priest of Forgotten Gods|
|1Seraph of the Scales|
This list by Belgian YouTuber LegenVD (that you can see played here) adheres to the established archetype pretty closely. The idea is to leverage the draining and pinging effects from Cruel Celebrant and Judith, the Scourge Diva with Priest of Forgotten Gods as the deck's main sacrifice outlet and Midnight Reaper as the card-drawing engine. Footlight Fiend and Gutterbones represent optimal fodder with other options being Dreadhorde Butcher, Hunted Witness, and small afterlife creatures like Orzhov Enforcer or Tithe Taker – essentially cards that either replace themselves, sometimes giving birth to something better in the process, or deal further damage. An Orzhov variant also exists, but red provides access to the very powerful Judith, which is reason enough to go with the Mardu build, which also contains enough multicolored spells to enable Hero of Precinct One's token factory.
God-Eternal Bontu acts as the big sister to both the Priest (because of the sacrifice effect) and the Reaper (because of the ensuing card-drawing), allowing for a more brutal approach to this intricacy of sacrificial triggers. Truth be told, the deck works just fine even without her contribution and you might want to cap the curve at four – where we find the precious lifegaining and recursion of Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord and the strategic duplication of Teysa Karlov. Nonetheless, Bontu descending upon the right board position is a win-con in and of itself, potentially resulting in a lethal number of harmful triggers. Make no mistake, though. This remains first and foremost Judith's stage and the Priest's temple; Bontu will never feel like the protagonist here. But in this house of the dead and dying, she'll likely end up being more appreciated than anywhere else in the meta.
This Little Piggy Smashed the Market
Hazoret the Fervent was unavailable for a comeback in War of the Spark – for one, she's not dead, so Bolas couldn't zombify her zealous self to make her fight in his campaign for personal godhood and universal supremacy. Luckily, Bolas' exuberant lackey Domri Rade had something that the elder dragon could borrow for the occasion: Ravnica's apocalyptic boar god, Ilharg. In Gruul millennialist lore, Ilharg is the bringer of the End-Raze (hence End-Raze Forerunners, also sporting the Boar type), which is the extinction-level event when Ravnica's whole urban fabric will be trampled down to rubble, returning the land to a state of nature. Now, the War of the Spark is the closest Ravnica has ever had to this kind of plane-wide cataclysm, so Ilharg might as well come out and play.
And this is how Ilharg was inducted into the God-Eternal cycle as the red representative – in place of Hazoret. If we look at the five of them as a whole, we'll realize that each of their unique triggered abilities either call for something being already on the battlefield (Bontu, Rhonas), being drawn into next (Kefnet), or being cast afterwards (Oketra).
Ilharg's case is closest to Oketra's in that both imply a creature-based build and both want you to be holding a creature in hand or to draw into one asap. But with Ilharg, there are more restrictions. First, you can't fire the trigger right away, unless you give your gigantic boar haste (which makes for a bit of flavorful synergy with Rhythm of the Wild and Domri, Chaos Bringer). But even if you'll have a creature in hand by the time Ilharg manages to raise his hooves and swing, it can't be just anything. You want it to be something that survives the attack or that otherwise has a meaningful impact on the board, such as some kind of ETB trigger. In fact, where Oketra supplies sheer card advantage in the form of a free 4/4 vigilant token created in response to any creature you happen to cast under her watch, thus weaponizing late-game mana dorks and whatnot, what Ilharg is attempting to offer you is tempo, effectively dropping a creature for free and giving it haste – but also forcing it to attack, which is not something you want to do with a mana dork in most cases. Ilharg himself is risking his porky butt every time you wish for his ability to set off, though as a 6/6 he generally feels pretty safe to do so. Still, where he's concerned, there's no real guarantee that each and every attack will prove advantageous or even feasible.
If you're looking at a Ghalta, Primal Hunger parked on the other side of the board, short of having Ravenous Chupacabra in hand, Ilharg will sit dead on the water, whereas Oketra would keep sprouting zombies to improve your board. Furthermore, Ilharg's effect is similar to previous red cheaters-into-play, like Sneak Attack and Through the Breach with the dropped creature spirited away at end of turn – in this case, by returning it to hand. This means you'll get to exploit any ETB trigger again during the next combat phase. Yet, your position post-Ilharg rampage is bound to stay the same, barring some impromptu token generation.
As a result, Ilharg still has to find a competitive habitat, albeit he's proven himself popular in more casual brews. He's invariably spotted in his home turf of Gruul, suggesting larger-than-life interactions with ginormous curve-toppers like Etali, Primal Storm and Ravager Wurm – despite the fact that Ilharg doesn't work at all with other attack triggers like Etali's, since the creature he lands on the battlefield isn't declared as an attacker, so it never gets the chance to trigger its own ability. Regardless, you can regularly stumble upon concoctions like this one from Spanish YouTuber MonkeyBusiness (deck's video here).
|Rocksteady by MonkeyBusiness|
|9Forest||1Etali, Primal Storm||3Domri, Anarch of Bolas|
|5Mountain||2Ghalta, Primal Hunger||2Domri, Chaos Bringer|
|4Rootbound Crag||3God-Eternal Rhonas||3Rhythm of the Wild|
|4Stomping Ground||3Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma|
|3Ilharg, the Raze-Boar|
The fact that this seems to be the kind of build that makes better use of Ilharg doesn't bode well for the divine hog's Standard ratings because this doesn't look like anything close to a competitive deck. The presence of Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma makes it a bit better, but it has to contend with the fact that Goreclaw is awfully frail for a midrange centerpiece and still has to find validation outside of the casual fare.
Going after the big play might not be the correct plan for our boar, which is after all the biggest and baddest of the new gods, thus an effective beater on his own, easily coming online on turn four and threatening six trampling damage per attack. Of course, you'd also want to take advantage of the mythic-level ability, and Gruul Midrange could offer an appealing target in the form of Rekindling Phoenix, an evasive attack companion that even looks forward to dying because in that case, it'll get to hang on to the battlefield, rather than returned to hand by Ilharg's end-of-turn clause. Problem is, competitive Gruul has better options for the five-CMC spot, most notably Sarkhan the Masterless. But even Skarrgan Hellkite appears to have more tactical value than our angry boar, which mostly has the built-in recursion going for him – something that might prove annoying to control decks, although they might rely on discard and countermagic as easy ways to put an end to their swine troubles. Nevertheless, Ilharg remains inherently playable, if less evidently so than all the God-Eternals we've reviewed so far.
All in all, I'd say that Bontu and Ilharg don't compare too favorably compared to Oketra and Kefnet and, in fact, are seeing less play than their fellow gods. However, they still represent significant threats on the battlefield, as well as serious value providers capable of generating extra draws and free drops, respectively.
And with this, our daily glorification comes to an end. In the final installment of Dangerous Pets: Beware a deadly snake.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.