Tribal Attractions: Sphinges

With its strict, four-faction setting, Ixalan has been a very tribal block, and then Dominaria doubled down with some tribal focus of its own. Time for Kumagoro to have fun with Modern-legal concoctions for some less obvious tribes, starting from the riddling terrors of blue skies.

Over time, the Sphinx has become the blue member of that informal group of tribes that represent the big, evasive finishers of (mostly) a single color: Angel for white, Demon for black, and Dragon for red (unfortunately, green doesn’t have any flying tribe, its closest approximation would be some archetypical fattie subtype like Wurm or Hydra).

And yet, the Sphinx didn’t start in blue. The very first application of the type was actually the monowhite Petra Sphinx from Legends.

Petra Sphinx
This fluffy thing doesn’t have any reason to cost triple white, now, does it?

However, Petra Sphinx would go down in history as a unique prototype, because none of the Sphinges that followed it were going to be non-blue, except for Commander 2015’s colorless Sandstone Oracle. In fact, to date, the vast majority of all existing Sphinges (30 out of 44) are monoblue. The rest of them pair blue with one or both of its allied colors, with the only exception of the other Commander 2015 specimen, Arjun, the Shifting Flame, which is Izzet-colored, the first ever red Sphinx.

It’s worth noting that eleven years actually had to pass between that first monowhite experiment and the next printed Sphinges, which debuted in Ravnica: City of Guilds as the not exactly remarkable Belltower Sphinx and Cerulean Sphinx. They don’t even reprise Petra’s original card-drawing and “riddle-posing” themes that were going to become a permanent feature of the tribe; they’d both come back right afterwards, though, thanks to Dissension’s overcomplicated Isperia the Inscrutable.

Isperia the Inscrutable

The first multicolored Sphinx, and the first of the eight Legendary Sphinges.

A side effect of this delay in populating the tribe is that almost every Sphinx is Modern-legal, with the exclusion of the progenitor Petra Sphinx and the odd couple from Commander 2015. As good a reason as any to build a fun deck where our enigmatic human-lion-bird hybrids are the true centerpieces.

Graveyard Shift

This was originally a Legacy (or more precisely, Legacy Tribal Wars) deck based on Living Death. Modern happens to have its own suspend version of that spell, Living End, which is actually faster, because it goes off via cascade spells, especially the instant-speed Violent Outburst. As we saw, though, Sphinges are mostly monoblue, sometimes Esper-colored, and with Violent Outburst being Gruul. That’s bound to create a very problematic mana base. Or we can just take the Living End plan down a notch. The advantage of playing such strategy with Sphinges is that our guys are going to be vastly superior to the usual Living End finishers, which are often very unsexy, semi-vanilla stuff like Monstrous Carabid, Desert Cerodon or Street Wraith. Here’s a possible list:

The Living Conundrum

So why are Sphinges good as the backbone of a mass reanimator build? It’s because of these two guys:

Vexing Sphinx Sphinx of Lost Truths

At three CMC, Vexing Sphinx is the cheapest Sphinx, but still has a big enough body to buy you time while you wait for your reanimation plan to materialize. This is already different than just cycling cards, as you establish a presence on the battlefield while you perform your dump & dig routine. You don’t want to keep your Vexing Sphinx active for more than a couple turns, which means you’ll let it go right after you added the third age counter, thus drawing three cards after having discarded as many, all while potentially attacking for up to 8 damage in the air. Played this way, Vexing Sphinx’s draw/discard ratio is exactly the same as its natural follow-up Sphinx of Lost Truths, except the latter draws you cards before you have to discard them, therefore allowing you to dig for better discard targets. Together, they’re a wonderful discard engine with several additional perks: Vexing Sphinx self-dumps into the graveyard once it’s done its trick, whereas its more expensive friend, which is even better at defending, comes with the option of being kicked in late game, turning Ideas Unbound into straight up Ancestral Recall.

Curator of Mysteries Consecrated Sphinx Sphinx of the Final Word

The rest of the Sphinges includes a full set of Curator of Mysteries, which plays more directly like a Living End creature, plus eight juicer reanimation targets in Consecrated Sphinx, which is simply the most powerful Sphinx in existence, and Sphinx of the Final Word, for its high resilience. I actually happen to still prefer the older Sphinx of Jwar Isle, which is easier to hardcast and has a cute tertiary ability that combos with Conundrum Sphinx, a solid four-drop which used to be my fourth playset, before the printing of Curator of Mysteries. And it’s not like hexproof is any different than shroud in this build. Still, Sphinx of the Final Word might prove occasionally relevant against permission decks. An argument can be made for Glyph Keeper as well, which is slightly more frail, but pretty easy to hardcast, and its embalm plays well with self-milling.

Sphinx of the Steel Wind Sphinx Sovereign

I also like to run one copy each of Sphinx of the Steel Wind and Sphinx Sovereign, both meant to offset the inevitable loss of life you’re bound to suffer in early turns, especially if you fail to find or keep around a Vexing Sphinx. Of course, Sphinx of the Steel Wind is a great reanimator target, but that coveted lifelink isn’t actually online until next turn’s combat phase; the more unassuming Sphinx Sovereign, instead, gives you 3 life by the end of the same turn it hits the battlefield, and then swings for a grand total of 9 the following turn. It’s more tactical than it looks.

Compared to the original Living Death build, I had to avoid any card that would cost less than three mana, in order to not get in the way of the cascade spells, a restriction that lost me useful time-buyers like Remand and Into the Roil (or Blink of an Eye, if you like it fresher), as well as the great, underrated exiler Curse of the Swine. You don’t want to send opponent creatures to the graveyard, lest you’ll bring them back once your Living End happens, so I set out to bounce them with Aetherize, exile them with Dissipate or, even better, control them with Vedalken Shackles, which seems like a no-brainer in a build where almost all lands are Islands (Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is only there to have a way to actually suspend Living End, but it’s not strictly necessary).

Vedalken Shackles Ardent Plea

Ardent Plea is my sole Living End enabler here, chosen merely because of color convenience; one can try and add some copies of Violent Outburst, changing the mana base accordingly, probably involving a set of Grove of the Burnwillows, and replacing the Shackles with Simian Spirit Guide.

Trinisphere might also be a good idea (although you already have several good plays at CMC 3), as is devising a sideboard with Ghostly Prison and of course Leyline of the Void over Rest in Peace. Alhammarret, High Arbiter could make sense if you want to prevent your mass reanimation to be followed by a sweeper.

The Vaults of Riddles

 Living End with Sphinges can be fun, but here’s another idea: given that the tribe counts several strong artifact creatures among its ranks, what about Open the Vaults? With some early mana rocks, and maybe Krark-Clan Ironworks to accelerate into the endgame.

Open the Vaults

You’ll still need the wonder couple Vexing Sphinx and Sphinx of Lost Truths to fill the graveyard, but the rest of the Sphinx team can entirely be of the artifact variety: certainly the mentioned Sphinx of the Steel Wind and Sphinx Sovereign, plus Sharuum the Hegemon, which doesn’t interact well with Open the Vaults, but provides some redundancy. Also Sphinx Summoner, Sharding Sphinx, Sandstone Oracle, maybe Magister Sphinx (although it can be a double-edged sword); probably not Enigma Sphinx, which requires hardcasting.

Sharuum the Hegemon Sharding Sphinx

It sounds better than a straight up midrange Sphinx deck, to be honest. Granted, we do have a proper Sphinx lord in Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign now, but its cost reduction comes after you’ve already hit six mana, and at that point you want Consecrated Sphinx’s insane card advantage or Sphinx of Jwar Isle’s untouchability; junior Fact or Fiction doesn’t cut it. Besides, if you plan to build a Sphinx deck that feels properly tribal, rather than just including a couple Sphinges as the finishers of choice of some Esper Control build (like, say, Gifts Control), the tribe’s curve lends itself to Vexing Sphinx as the starter, and Vexing Sphinx is naturally linked to reanimation strategies. So, there you have it, the Sphinges unexpectedly reveal themselves as the queens of the graveyard. It’s puzzling, isn’t it?

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