You Shall Have Other Gods (Part 1)
- 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 start our adoration by paying tribute to the serene Oketra and the sibylline Kefnet.
That is not dead which can eternal lie. Or, to be more precise, which Nicol Bolas can turn into one of his Eternals. The scheming dragon's interplanar invasion army includes the zombified form of the entire monocolored pantheon of Amonkhet… except for Hazoret the Fervent, who didn't die on her native plane and remained fiercely uncooperative – but we'll have to wait till the next installment to see who takes her place in the mana wheel. Suffice to say, the other four Gods of that cycle are back as supercharged zombies, ready to grace the battlefield with their divine presence, and ultimately be instrumental in Bolas's own defeat. (Spoiler for War of the Spark, I guess?)
Among the new subtypes introduced in the last few years, "God" is possibly the one that caused the biggest splash play-wise. And it seems only right, considering that they are, after all, gods – you would expect them to matter more than Sables or Lamias. At the time of the subtype's first appearance in Theros, when it was based on the gods from the ancient Greek tradition, indestructibility was used to convey their celestial resilience. The same route was taken in Amonkhet for the monocolored cycle, whereas the Bolas-colored trio from Hour of Devastation employed a different mechanic, causing a God to return to its owner's hand when sent to the graveyard from the battlefield. This made them equally vulnerable to exile effects compared to the indestructible Gods, but with the added downsides of requiring to be cast again as a consequence of destruction, plus exposing them to the dangers of instant graveyard removal during the temporal window that exists between their death and reincarnation.
The God-Eternals of War of the Spark takes this disadvantage one step further. Their "immortality" clause states that when they die, they may be put back into their owner's library third from the top (i.e. they "Teferi" themselves). And this is usually worse than being returned to your hand because you end up losing a draw this way, and you can't access them again until you have made your way to that third card. Little lead I've buried here, though, is that this effect is triggered by hitting the exile zone as well. This is huge because exile effects were the go-to way to get rid of the older Gods. Now, they just manage to slow down the Eternals – and two of them come equipped with an ETB trigger, so they're happy to be re-cast at a later point.
The second major difference between these new Gods and most of their previous counterparts is that the former are immediately active: No devotion or other shenanigans are required – these Gods have come back from the dead as slaves of an Elder Dragon planeswalker. They don't care about being worshiped anymore.
In summation, resistance to exile and being able to attack and block unconditionally from the get-go are certainly good things. But are they enough to turn the God-Eternals into Standard stars? Let's find out, case by case.
The Right Way to Skin a Cat
Back in Amonkhet, Oketra (based on the Egyptian Bastet) was the goddess of protection and solidarity. Her previous incarnation never saw any competitive play, requiring a developed board to wake her up from her initial torpor, and only contributing a vigilant 1/1 token for each four-mana activation. Well, what about a 4/4 token for zero mana instead? Coordinated effort is really the name of the game for the new and improved Oketra. She not only gets to keep the same body and combat-related ability of her original card for just one mana more, but she also receives a token-making trigger that responds to the casting of any other creature. This means, and it's important to note, the creature spell doesn't even need to resolve for a Warrior Zombie to appear on the battlefield, eager to attack without turning sideways.
It's painfully clear where Oketra wants to be: smack in the middle of a creature-heavy deck that's not discouraged by the inherently midrange routine of casting a five-mana centerpiece, then waiting around some more for the payoff. This seems to exclude white-based aggro lists, whose curve, if we take convoke into consideration, essentially caps at three. Token decks in Selesnya colors also seem unsuitable, since many components of those lists generate creatures without being creature spells themselves. So maybe the deck that plays the new Oketra isn't part of the meta yet. A midrange build with as many creatures as possible suggests a toolbox archetype, and that kind of deck historically needs an engine at the core, be it Survival of the Fittest, Birthing Pod, Green Sun's Zenith or Collected Company – a green engine, more likely. Is there anything like that in current Standard? Oh yes, there is indeed.
|Bant Pod by Will Erker|
|4Breeding Pool||2Deputy of Detention||3Neoform|
|4Hallowed Fountain||4Elite Guardmage|
|4Hinterland Harbor||4Fblthp, the Lost|
|1Plains||2Knight of Autumn|
|1Sunpetal Grove||1Kraul Harpooner|
|4Temple Garden||4Llanowar Elves|
|4Prime Speaker Vannifar|
|1Shalai, Voice of Plenty|
|1Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves|
|3Frilled Mystic||1Kraul Harpooner||4Negate|
|2Teferi, Time Raveler||2The Wanderer||2Vivien's Arkbow|
|1Vivien, Champion of the Wilds|
This list was piloted to first place by Will Erker in the Mythic Championship Qualifier in St. Louis on 4 May 2019. As the name of the deck given by Erker implies, it's an approximation of a Birthing Pod deck by way of Prime Speaker Vannifar with new Simic toy Neoform as a one-shot redundancy.
Vannie has been lying dormant waiting for the right companion pieces since Ravnica Allegiance, but she's a powerful enabler and in some respects, weaker than the Phyrexian artifact she mimics. (She drops one turn later; she has summoning sickness; she's killed by creature removal, although she dribbles Cast Down and resists a single Lightning Strike). She also doesn't require mana to activate; she's more easily untapped.) If left unchecked in the right deck, she's able to generate huge amounts of value, possibly exploiting both death triggers and ETB triggers. This kind of shell needs a plan, though. Of course, in Standard, we can't expect to always have available prime endgame combos like Melira, Sylvok Outcast with Murderous Redcap or Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker with Restoration Angel, but so far there's just nothing explosive enough to justify the brewing to begin with, or at least nothing as explosive as Oketra. Now, with Vannifar being Simic and our godly token factory asking for double white, we end firmly in Bant, which is a good color range for a toolbox – even though losing black targets like Ravenous Chupacabra and red fuels like Rekindling Phoenix is a bit of a bummer.
Let's have a look at the building choices Erker made at each step of the curve and what might be possible alternatives.
CMC 1: Llanowar Elves is unsurprisingly our basic mana dork (that green decks with a sustained curve can't really do without). Here's hoping Core Set 2020 will return Birds of Paradise to Standard. That would open some interesting avenues.
CMC 2: Paradise Druid puts our acceleration at eight pieces, which is needed. She's also crucial for color fixing in a way that Incubation Druid wouldn't be and she guarantees to untap on turn three with four mana due to hexproof. You can't bolt this bird! (But yeah, she's still bad against the scourge of Elves, Goblin Chainwhirler.) It would be possible to cut one or two of them for Merfolk Branchwalker, which is less of a surefire fixer, but more dynamically digs for good draws.
The singleton Kraul Harpooner is a silver bullet, while Fblthp, the Lost is a specific tech in a Vannifar build, given that he acts as an Elvish Visionary when hardcast, but can also turn a Llanowar Elves into two cards in the late game. Clearly, all of these two-drops are bound to be sacrificed to Vannifar without a second thought once they have outlasted their usefulness, which might well happen as soon as they hit the battlefield.
CMC 3: At this stage, the creatures begin to perform more specialized functions. Deputy of Detention is all-purpose removal; Knight of Autumn provides life and hates on artifacts and enchantments; District Guide allows us to run as few as 21 lands, so this card is preferred over something like Jadelight Ranger to keep the creature count high by taking over one land slot.
Militia Bugler is another build-related inclusion as he replaces himself with another creature, which is quite valuable when Oketra is online. Amazingly, 30 out of the 36 creatures in the deck can be tutored this way, including Vannifar, so the chances of a Bugler misfiring are very low, and that's something that we should keep in mind if we run this many.
At CMC 3, we can also find the third and missing member of Vannifar and Oketra's girlfriend circle, Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner. Our proud merfolk is one of those cards whose power level might elude us until we actually try her out on the battlefield. She links directly to the other two centerpieces, untapping Vannifar for another go and drawing us a card every time Oketra does her trick. Erker elected not to use any Kiora, probably to maximize the number of creatures, but several other Vannifar lists run as many as three of her.
CMC 4: Our Vannifar engine resides here along with the very versatile Spark Double, which combos with Shalai, Voice of Plenty to lock the entire board under a hexproof shield. Of course, Vannifar and Oketra make for excellent double targets themselves, as do the other Legendary curve-toppers. For this reason, both Shalai and Spark Double are usually terminal destinations for the Pod Vannifar train, so we're in need of some more expendable four-drops to turn onto maximum power.
Elite Guardmage is a good inclusion, representing three life and a card draw, plus some presence in the air. Conclave Cavalier is the main alternative here, as she leaves behind the same amount of power once thrown in Vannifar's cauldron. But I guess she interacts better with Kiora, while the Guardmage combos nicely with Militia Bugler.
CMC 5: The heavy weapons department includes not only Oketra, but also Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves with six points of power and toughness, three life and some removal potential and Trostani Discordant, who goes even wider and boosts the team for the decisive strike. We might find several other relevant five-drops in Bant, though. Lyra Dawnbringer is the first that comes to mind, but Biogenic Ooze is also great and not to mention Vannifar-related, since the Simic mad scientist has turned her body into translucent Ooze, making her able to enjoy the Biogenic +1/+1 counters.
Another Simic creature that's often seen in these lists, but I don't terribly like is Roalesk, Apex Hybrid. He's okay, but he's not the be-all, end-all finisher his mystic status purports him to be. He's definitely more alluring in a list that also features a six-drop because then you get to double-proliferate on your own terms.
CMC 6: This spot is entirely empty in Erker's brew, which tops the curve at five. If we're willing to go to the next level, one of the most appealing options is Azor, the Lawbringer, since fetching him prevents the opponent from playing anything disruptive for one turn. Thus, setting up a big turn for ourselves afterwards. Also, you know, he's a large flyer that lets us cast one Sphinx's Revelation per attack.
As for the sideboard, it mostly worries about control strategies, which is the worst matchup for the deck. Vivien, Champion of the Wilds and Teferi, Time Raveler help resolve our spells around countermagic while supplying different forms of card advantage. Frilled Mystic is a hard counter that later doubles as sacrifice fodder. Vivien's Arkbow takes advantage of the massive creature density, and it's another way to produce an output of creatures at instant speed that circumvents countermagic. It's particularly sweet to try and hit Frilled Mystic this way, something Vannifar, unfortunately, can't properly exploit.
The Wanderer is brutal against red and generally against builds that use damage as removal, which includes spells like Enter the God-Eternals and Oath of Kaya. Furthermore, that she can also exile a couple of Phoenices or buffed-up Armies is just gravy. Finally, Negate is still here even while we live in a Dovin's Veto world to avoid putting more pressure on the mana base.
If you're interested in seeing Oketra in the hands of a talented player, Czech pro player Ondřej Stráský has recently played on his Twitch stream a Bant list with three copies of her, but no Vannifar. He used instead four maindeck small Viviens to give everything flash. The Vannifar version, but with Kiora as support, is showcased in one of ProfessorNox's YouTube videos.
A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two
After so much theorizing for what is at the end of the day a softcore combo deck, I'm sure the Kefnet list will appear more straightforward and easier to talk about by comparison. Based on Thoth, our blue ibis friend was Amonkhet's god of knowledge, and his previous form was only an active 5/5 flyer for three mana, as long as his controller had seven or more cards in hand – something that definitely requires some effort achieving. Kefnet helped with that though by drawing a card and returning a land to hand at four mana per activation. New Kefnet is one mana more expensive and has apparently lost one point of power during mummification, but he doesn't care about the size of your hand anymore. Instead, he blesses you with a discounted copy of the first card you draw every turn (which includes the opponent's if you manage to draw a card there), provided the card is an instant or sorcery. Cue spellslinging builds in the grand tradition of Delver of Secrets and the likes. In a complete 180° from Oketra, when Kefnet is around, you will want a deck that's composed of as many non-permanents as possible. This naturally lends itself to Control.
The thing is, though, while it's possible to build a list where every card is a permanent, the opposite is pretty much impossible, which means Kefnet's ability is doomed to whiff about half the time, probably more. And even if it doesn't, the top of your library might not reveal a spell with a meaningful target or purpose; it might reveal a counterspell, which is just another form of whiffing. If everything goes according to plan though and Kefnet's presence does deliver, then that will result in a gigantic advantage.
Ultimately, and unlike Oketra, Kefnet is not exactly a build-around card. He's more like a value piece that perfectly accommodates a deck that's already built in the right way. Perhaps it just nudges the deck a bit more in the direction of not playing permanents if you can manage without – something Augur of Bolas is already advocating. Kefnet himself is not indispensable in those builds, but as a four-mana evasive beater with solid stats that keeps coming back and occasionally makes us a gift, it's far from unwelcome. In fact, it's going to become a staple in every blue-based Control list in the meta.
It's a sentiment that I'm sure was shared by popular streamer CovertGoBlue who used Kefnet in two different lists, the first of which has no sideboard since it’s meant for the best-of-one ladder on MTG Arena.
|Grixis Control by CovertGoBlue|
|4Blood Crypt||4Augur of Bolas||2Bedevil|
|3Dragonskull Summit||2God-Eternal Kefnet||2Blink of an Eye|
|4Drowned Catacomb||2Chemister's Insight|
|2Island||3Commence the Endgame|
|4Steam Vents||3Sinister Sabotage|
|3Sulfur Falls||2Vraska's Contempt|
|2Swamp||2Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God|
|4Watery Grave||2Angrath's Rampage|
|3Cry of the Carnarium|
|3Enter the God-Eternals|
Right now, the best Control form in Standard is still Esper, but this one is Grixis to try out Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God. By giving up white, we renounce powerful cards like Absorb, Dovin's Veto, Mortify, Kaya's Wrath, and especially Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Teferi, Time Raveler. On the other hand, adding red gives us access to Angrath's Rampage, Bedevil, and Bolas himself.
The rest of the pile is a mix of well-oiled control pieces like Thought Erasure and Vraska's Contempt and some new instant classics like Enter the God-Eternals and Commence the Endgame, which are excellent Kefnet targets. The deck's analysis is not one that involves too many intricacies as it boils down to: prevent or answer the threat, gain additional value, keep drawing cards, rinse, repeat. You can hear CGB himself discuss the list before playing it in a video he made for his YouTube channel.
The second list is even more Kefnet-centric. It's a Dimir build with a fun Mastermind's Acquisition package, which combines with The Mirari Conjecture to generate mad value with a second, possibly duplicated use of the Acquisition.
Compared to the Grixis version, it doesn’t employ any countermagic, but digs much deeper into the library with Opt and Chart a Course, giving Kefnet more chances to copy cheap spells. It can also bounce back its own Augur of Bolas via Tyrant's Scorn.
As CBG explains in this video, the list has good matchups against aggro and midrange and puts up a fair fight against other control decks. But against more well-rounded Esper lists with the long-run Teferi win-con, the battleplan is pretty painful: Let them down whatever they want, patiently wait for the next copy of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to show up, then blow each of them up with a Blast Zone, which they can't counter. It can take a minute.
|Dimir Control by CovertGoBlue|
|4Blast Zone||4Augur of Bolas||4Chart a Course|
|3Dimir Guildgate||3God-Eternal Kefnet||3Cry of the Carnarium|
|4Drowned Catacomb||3Enter the God-Eternals|
|5Swamp||1Ritual of Soot|
|4Watery Grave||4Thought Erasure|
And that's enough veneration for one day. In the next installment of Divine Animals, meet a crocodile and a boar.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.