Playmat Icons: Sphinxes
- Gianluca Aicardi
When they're not eating those who fail to solve their puzzle challenges, Sphinxes incarnate blue's card advantage in the shape of evasive finishers. Be they pulled from ancient Egyptian lore or from Greek mythology, it's not a mystery that these cunning creatures puts an enigmatic twist to their Magic builds.
As of Commander Legends, there are 64 different black-bordered Sphinxes in the game. Let's see how we can build around the iconic creature type representing blue in a series of increasingly wider formats, from Standard to Legacy.
Unfortunately, there are only four Sphinxes in Standard at the moment, three from Theros Beyond Death, one from Zendikar Rising. Fortunately, one of these is the formidable Dream Trawler, which is apt to become the centerpiece of any deck, particularly as the finisher of choice for a control build in its colors. However, just running some copies of the sexy blue-skinned lion isn't really enough to define a list Sphinx-themed, so I figured I should add another fellow Sphinx at the minimum. Now, the common Witness of Tomorrows is merely a playable Limited card, while the rare Sphinx Mindbreaker is quite overcosted for what it does.
But the other rare, Master of Winds, looks pretty okay, has a reasonable mana cost, a positive effect upon entering the battlefield, and doesn't actually require the Wizard/party tribalism the last ability suggests. If we want to be perfectly honest, a proper Dream Trawler deck doesn't strictly need this kind of midrange drop, even when it incorporates ways to retrigger the enter-the-battlefield effect and super-loot again. But since we're having a Sphinx focus, the least we could do is give this underplayed Zendikari flier a chance.
|Azorius Sphinx Control, Standard|
Admittedly, Dream Trawler's fifteen minutes of fame in Standard are already over, at least for the time being. Traditional white-based control decks in general aren't having their hottest moment right now, with just Esper Doom holding the fort, and not even as a top tier list. The most likely place to find Dream Trawler is as a target for residual Lukka shenanigans, even if those Jeskai builds have become increasingly rare post-rotation and after the banning of Fires of Invention. This said, a resolved Trawler backed up by countermagic remains to this day as big of a deal as it had always been, and Master of Winds does a pretty decent job at replenishing the hand in a deck with extended flickering capability, so the list above appears functional if nothing else.
It's a more creature-oriented approach to control, giving Yorion a couple of regular slots in the main, rather than bothering to satisfy the 80-card clause to employ it as a companion. There's still the combo with Charming Prince to keep blinking the whole board turn after turn, and a healthy quantity of targets for that routine, mostly of the removal variety. The deck is obviously bound to perform better with a sideboard, to fine-tune its tempo and counterspell suite to the occasion, but it's naturally solid enough to have a chance to emerge from many matchups with a positive outcome.
The Sphinx tribal horizons are greatly broadened by Pioneer, which adds 28 extra members to the Standard allotment. Half of the entire tribe is fully available to the builders working with the smallest nonrotating format in the game. This alone can be taken as an inspiration to showcase a wider range of different Sphinxes, although a few of the most celebrated classics, like Consecrated Sphinx and Sphinx of Jwar Isle, still lie beyond our reach. What we do have at our disposal are two powerful mana sinks in Sphinx of Magosi and Azor, the Lawbringer, as well as the very protagonist of so many Jeskai builds of last season's Standard, namely Sphinx of Foresight. It sounds like we might have a Fires of Invention stew going!
|Jeskai Sphinx Fires, Pioneer|
The plan is similar to what we're already accustomed to with any Fires of Invention build. You must consistently make your land drop, arriving at the fourth turn with the namesake enchantment ready to drop, ideally alongside a meaningful follow up. Shimmer of Possibility and Narset do the digging. Day's Undoing further combos with the planeswalker's static ability and generally ensures we won't find ourselves without fuel for our Fires.
Deafening Clarion has the key role of clearing the board against aggro. Anger of the Gods is its main competitor for the job, but the Clarion's lifelink option can lead to life swings of considerable magnitude in a deck with so many large creatures. Speaking of which, compared to regular Fires lists, one based around Sphinxes will sorely lack the element of surprise, since none of our creatures have haste. (We could still include a few copies of good ole Kenrith, but it seemed thematically questionable.)
What they don't lack is the ability to pull fresh cards into our hand, so even if they're dealt with before they can seal the deal, we'll probably have a new wave ready to hit the board. The best specimen in this regard is Sphinx of Magosi, which starts as a threatening 6/6 and can immediately exploit the unused mana caused by the Fires to turn its body into an 8/8 and twice replace itself. Azor offers an even better draw ratio but has to survive until next turn's attack phase first; though negating all instants and sorceries to the opponent during that turn cycle is a bit of a guarantee toward its continued existence.
Of course we need drops that can happen when we have fewer than six lands on the battlefield, too. Sphinx of Foresight is one of them, playing a second important role after the turn-zero triple scry that can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Prognostic Sphinx at five gives us some resilience, better draws, as well as some use for surplus lands. At the same spot in the curve, Glyph Keeper is a valid alternative, especially with embalm being an activated ability that circumvents the "two spells per turn" limit of Fires of Invention. On the other hand, it dies to our Clarion, which isn't great. On top of this, Prognostic Sphinx combos nicely with Arbiter of the Ideal, which is mainly included as a fun card. It's way too slow to be taken seriously, but if there's a deck that can pull off the inspired trick, it's certainly one with this much incidental scrying.
Among the other six-mana Sphinxes to consider, the tempo players Dream Eater and Riddlemaster Sphinx stand out. Usually the former is seen as the better one, but in a deck that will rarely be able to cast it with flash, there's something to be said for the Riddlemaster's Clarion-resistant body.
Furthermore, Medomai the Ageless has a non-negligible ability if it connects. It's a meme-worthy win-more card, but so is Arbiter of the Ideal, though they both entail the same setup, and ultimately the Arbiter might enact a more lasting effect on the battlefield. Finally, Dream Trawler is still its terrific self and has the right to a place in any deck, whether it's about running Sphinxes or otherwise. I just wanted to differentiate the lists more sharply, but nobody will fault you for packing a set of Trawlers in lieu of four of the six-drops and calling it a day.
Another 21 Sphinxes get unlocked when we move to Modern. Those that immediately catch the eye are the artifact Sphinxes from the Esper shard of Alara, which notably include the two-for-one Sharuum the Hegemon and the high-profile reanimator target Sphinx of the Steel Wind. (One could call it the tribe's Akroma.) And Sphinx Summoner is a tutor for artifacts, with a body attached. These are all expensive cards, so we're looking for a Modern shell that's able to generate some ramp, perhaps in an artifact-related manner, as well as one that routinely dumps artifacts into the graveyard and then cares about the fact that they're there. Are you thinking when I'm thinking? Can this be a job for the Lord High Artificer himself?
|Sphinx Whirza, Modern|
The Whirza archetype has kind of fallen out of fashion after the loss of Arcum's Astrolabe, but it's still well worth playing. The crucial non-artifact pieces are Urza, Lord High Artificer, to turn all the early artifacts into mana rocks, and Emry, Lurker of the Loch, to essentially draw more artifacts by way of the graveyard. The third cog in the machine, Goblin Engineer, is even more important In our case than it usually is, because we rejoice at the idea of tutoring up one of our key permanents, to reanimate it later with Sharuum or just hardcast it via Emry.
A critical mass of low-cost artifacts is needed for Urza to power the whole structure and to activate the various synergies including Glimmervoid and Spire of Industry. Among these trinkets, one that we want to max out in the absence of the Astrolabe is Ichor Wellspring, because it's a mana rock under Urza, but also draws us a card both when it enters the battlefield and when an Engineer sacrifices it, perhaps in order to recur another copy of it, or a sacrificed Mishra's Bauble, or a Spellbomb. The card advantage game is strong with this one.
Whirza's regular win condition is the army of Thopters brought about by the repeatable interaction between Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek. We replaced it with big dumb Sphinxes, which of course makes the whole enterprise much, much sillier. But if we manage to pull off some of the related shenanigans, it can be very satisfying.
For instance, we can use an Engineer to Entomb a copy of Sphinx Summoner; then cast it from the graveyard with Emry to get Sharuum; which will be able to return to the battlefield pretty much anything, up to and including Mindslaver; which in turn combos with Academy Ruins to provide more or less infinite turns once we reach enough mana and a profitable board position.
Now, we have no way to search for Academy Ruins, and we can't afford to run more copies of a land that only produces colorless mana in a deck that contains cards of four different colors. On the other hand, thanks to the Summoner, whose tutor effect Emry can recur, we have endless ways to find one of our silver bullets, from all-purpose solutions like Engineered Explosives and Pithing Needle to Mindslaver or one of the more expensive Sphinxes. These really are the pride and joy of Esper: Magister Sphinx shortens the clock and directly counters lifegain strategies; Sphinx Sovereign can gain us life right away, and essentially swings for nine; Sphinx of the Steel Wind is a nightmare to face for red and/or green decks, and is an even greater source of life and a grandiose presence on the board; and Sharding Sphinx is its own version of a Thopter factory.
Legacy completes the Sphinx tribal ranks, albeit with only eleven members that aren't legal in Modern. The Sphinxes really came into focus only after the change of frame, and they've made great strides since the original printing of their progenitor, the now decidedly odd Petra Sphinx from Legends. A minor staple in Legacy Tribal Wars (the proper format with a requirement of "one third of the deck, rounded down, must be creatures sharing a subtype") is about exploiting their knack for drawing and discarding cards, usually at an advantage. The goal is to land a number of Sphinxes in the graveyard and then mass-reanimate them all through Living Death. If this sounds like a plan, it's because it is.
|Esper Sphinx Reanimator, Legacy|
The interesting angle here is to appreciate how well the Sphinxes lend themselves to this battle plan. Curator of Mysteries pitches itself for one mana; Vexing Sphinx and Sphinx of Lost Truths dig into the library for land drops, accelerators, and Living Death, while also discarding a high volume of potential reanimation targets, and then act as expendable blockers. Vexing Sphinx in particular is the heart of the deck, putting a 4/4 body on the battlefield for three mana, then providing a discard outlet the next upkeep. Just by letting it die the turn afterward we regain two cards (as the age counter is placed before we decline to pay the cost) and we reposition the Sphinx into the graveyard, where it lies waiting for a new life in death.
As one of the main finishers, we finally have Consecrated Sphinx, one of the most pushed card-drawing engines on legs ever printed. Imagine casting Wistful Thinking on the opponent with a Consecrated Sphinx on board! Though the more resilient top end is instead Sphinx of the Final Word, an improved Sphinx of Jwar Isle. The latter and slightly cheaper older Sphinx is still preferable in builds where you plan to hardcast your curve toppers, as opposed to reanimate them. The precognition of the next draw also interacts favorably with the mini-game from Conundrum Sphinx, in turn a reasonable four-drop and possible substitute for the Curator, which is the lowest-impact creature here. (With all the scry we come across in these decks, one would almost be tempted to run Eligeth, Crossroads Augur!)
This deck doesn't actually make use of any of the Sphinxes that are exclusive to Legacy and Vintage. Most of them, like Inspired Sphinx, Sphinx of Enlightenment, and Enigma Thief, were designed with a multiplayer format in mind, if not for Commander specifically, which is the case of Arjun, the Shifting Flame and Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign, for instance. Yennett herself makes for a perfect leader in a Sphinx-flavored Commander deck. Going by rules text alone, the preordained tribal lord is supposed to be Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign, but securing access to all the Esper Sphinxes is a tribal imperative. Something that makes Arjun, as the only red Sphinx in existence (apart from Sphinx of the Guildpact), quite hard to grasp. One could say, enigmatic?
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.