In the beginning…
A long time ago, Magic was in a rough spot. A few sets had been underwhelming, and the game was not doing so well. The leadership team went to the Pro Tour to find players who could tweak cards to fix the issues, brought ‘em on board, and things started to go well. Then their hubris got the better of them and they printed this card:
Mind’s Desire was a mistake, immediately. Or rather, the “Storm” mechanic was a mistake, and Mind’s Desire was the card that most clearly demonstrated that fact. It received several bannings and restrictions in its time in Standard, Vintage, Extended, Legacy…you name it. So, I was a little surprised as I was playing March of the Machines booster draft to have someone play this card on me:
Well, that’s just Mind’s Desire with a 7/7 body attached to it!
Okay, okay, credit where it’s due, Etali is not at the degeneracy level of Mind’s Desire because Storm, the ability to repeat the effect over and over again, was removed. Or was it?
As miffed as I was by having Etali dropped on me in a 40-card deck, Breach the Multiverse was on a different level. By far the most powerful rare in the Sealed format, it seemed tailor made to work with Etali and replicate the “Storm” portion of Mind’s Desire. Instead of spending your time using Ritual effects to build the arbitrary number of spells count, Breach and Etali let you simply cast the big spell once and start storming from there. This becomes even more true when the whole format is doing the same thing; now Etali and Breach are twice as likely to hit something to let you keep storming because your opponent is also playing those cards. Here’s the list I settled on to make the push to Mythic:
4 Cathartic Pyre (MID) 133
6 Swamp (SLD) 65
4 Fable of the Mirror-Breaker (NEO) 141
2 Big Score (SNC) 102
4 Breach the Multiverse (MOM) 94
4 Sulfurous Springs (DMU) 256
2 Atraxa, Grand Unifier (ONE) 196
4 Xander's Lounge (SNC) 260
4 Ziatora's Proving Ground (SNC) 261
3 Mountain (SLD) 66
4 Etali, Primal Conqueror (MOM) 137
2 Titan of Industry (SNC) 159
2 Go for the Throat (BRO) 102
2 Sheoldred's Edict (ONE) 108
4 The Cruelty of Gix (DMU) 87
4 Bloodtithe Harvester (VOW) 232
4 Haunted Ridge (MID) 263
1 Blackcleave Cliffs (ONE) 248
4 Sheoldred, the Apocalypse (DMU) 107
3 Brotherhood's End (BRO) 128
4 Glistening Deluge (MOM) 107
1 Brotherhood's End (BRO) 128
3 Invasion of Fiora (MOM) 114
The Early Plays
Cathartic Pyre, Go for the Throat/Sheoldred’s Edict, Bloodtithe Harvester, and Fable of the Mirror Breaker are your early plays. Pyre and the black spells represent removal for things like Talia and red creatures trying to kill you, though Pyre also serves as card filtering in matchups where you don’t need the creature/planeswalker removal or in situations where you’d rather dump a reanimation target into the graveyard. Fable of the Mirror Breaker is simply one of the tentpoles of the format, and in this deck chumps aggressive decks, accelerates your mana, and dumps cards into the graveyard for Cruelty of Gix. In an odd game where things have gone awry, the Kiki Jiki final form of the enchantment is a viable win condition too. I started with 4 Go for the Throat, but soon realized I needed an out to planeswalkers and occasionally artifact creatures which is how the split became 2/2 between Throat and Sheoldred’s Edict. Bloodtithe Harvester provides you a discard outlet, removal that doesn’t have to pay Thalia tax, and a beatdown opportunity against an opponent that isn’t trying to attack you.
The Payoff Spells
Etali is your primary payoff creature, but four copies wasn’t enough because it led to an occasional whiff. I added 4 Atraxa, the prior darling in this space, but candidly? She’s not that good anymore. Breach means you’re trying to end the game immediately, not win a long game where you keep refilling your hand, so I cut her to 2 and added Titan of Industry. Titan genuinely might be better than Atraxa entirely because there are far more games where the 5 life from Titan or the blowing up of an enchantment is the difference between winning and losing, and that is almost never the case with Atraxa.
Yes, Etali belongs in this space too, but he’s already been covered. Big Score started as a 4-of when I was playing 24 lands, but I was losing more games to running short on lands than I was winning from accelerating out Breach or Etali so it became 2. It still has the same job, though: occasionally speeding up a Breach or Etali, and as a backup serving as a discard outlet for Cruelty. Speaking of which, Cruelty of Gix is another way to cheat Etali onto the battlefield. It’s also fine as a five-mana spell that you don’t accelerate through the steps on; almost always the Vampiric Tutor ability finds you the missing piece to go off while disrupting your opponent’s game plan. Finally, Breach is the singular combo on its own but be cautious about card counts while using it. You can absolutely and inadvertently mill yourself out.
The details of manabases is one of my weak spots as a deckbuilder. I started on 24 lands because I always play too few, and 26 is better for this deck. The collection of them here meant I didn’t struggle to have the mana I needed when I wanted it, but also could mana fix if my opponent had Field of Ruin. Is it perfect? Almost certainly not, and to the people reading this smarter than me, holler out your proposed solutions. One note: Darkslick Shores type lands are worse than the cycle that enter untapped if you have 3+ lands. You’re a big play deck, not an aggro deck, so it’s much more important on turn 6 to have all untapped lands than to be fully untapped on turn 2.
I spent about half my time playing best of 1, and half my time playing best of 3, including the final stages of Diamond to get into Mythic. Against beatdown decks you bring in the removal and Sheoldred and cut cards that are expensive, like Atraxa, Titan, Breach, and some number of Etali/Cruelty. Your goal is to just out last them with powerful spells and regain your life from Sheoldred.
I had Duress in for a long time against control decks, but I was losing to aggro decks more frequently and Duress wasn’t making a big enough difference. I usually swap Cathartic Pyre for Sheoldred and play old school against control: hit land drops and cast your powerful spells. Something will stick eventually, and you can ride that to victory. You only need one Etali or Breach to land in order to start “going off.” Big Score is also a good candidate to cut as it sets up a two-for-one you can’t afford against control.
What does this deck DO?
New Standard quickly became all about “Rakdos” decks, which refers to the fact the decks play black and red cards but has nothing to do with the pathology of the Rakdos clan. The Nathan Steuer deck seems to be the main inspiration, with “big spells” including the classics of Sheoldred and Invoke Despair and adding in the new Chandra, Hope’s Beacon. Not to speak out of turn about a Pro Tour champion, but that strategy isn’t the most powerful thing you can do in Standard, and a strong rule to live by when testing a format is to do the most powerful thing until you’ve got a clear reason why you shouldn’t be doing the most powerful thing. After all, there’s a reason it’s the most powerful thing!
My goal, then, was to not die and then start comboing off with Etali and Breach. I centered my deck around enabling that to happen as much as possible, finding three main avenues that worked:
- A long game sees you stopping early threats and reaching seven mana naturally at which point you just cast one of your key spells. This is the least likely route to victory.
- You use Fable or Big Score to cheat a seven-drop out early with Treasure tokens.
- Cruelty of Gix allows you to cheat Etali into play through a discard engine like Bloodtithe Harvester, Cathartic Pyre, Fable, or Big Score.
At its peak, the deck can have Etali on the battlefield on Turn 4 with the following turn sequence:
- Turn 1: land
- Turn 2: land
- Turn 3: Land, Fable
- Turn 4: discard Etali to Fable, land, attack with Goblin token to make a Treasure, Cruelty of Gix on 3 to return Etali
While the cards to make that happen come together plenty frequently, the Goblin token from Fable has a bigger target on its head than a Hawkeye tight end on a pass play. What does “going off” look like? Tying back to the Mind’s Desire analogy at the top of this piece, you generate enough mana to do one of your big spells, then keeping casting free stuff. The goal is to cast as many free things as possible. Here’s an example of a goofy situation against an opponent playing a similar strategy:
- Cast Cruelty to get back Etali
- Etali’s trigger hits Breach
- Breach hits an Etali from your opponent
- New Etali hits Cruelty of Gix from your deck, which you use to target Etali
- New New Etali hits another Etali from your deck
Do you sometimes hit a Cut Down and Cathartic Pyre that do nothing in the situation? Sure, but then you’ve cleared a bunch of duds off your deck and your opponent still has to manage the 7/7 you’re threatening them with.
Tips and Tricks
- Some decks can interact with your graveyard through things like Corpse Appraiser or Graveyard Trespasser, so be wary of when you discard things to use Cruelty of Gix. Don’t give your opponent a window to snipe your target!
- You will mill some opponents out with Breach and Etali as they won’t be paying attention to deck counts. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.
- If you’re playing against a control deck, casting Etali first before Breach or even Cruelty (if you have seven mana anyway) is often correct because if they counter it you benefit from it being in the graveyard for your next big spell.
- Memory Deluge is not a great free spell from Etali, and you should leave it exiled. Because you paid 0 mana for it you will draw no cards, but it will be in your opponent’s graveyard for them to flashback.
- Exiling cards you’ve stolen from your opponent that then return will give them free stuff. In one game I was using my opponent’s Guardian of Ghirapur to get extra rolls from Etali, but ran out of dinosaur targets. Being clever, I targeted my Guardian so I could use it again at end of turn, forgetting it wasn’t actually my Guardian. Instead, my opponent got a free Angel.
- Etali has a backside! Sometimes flipping him and bashing for Poison is the right play, and I forgot that frequently because I got too caught up in “going off” and lost sight of trying to win.
Etali/Breach is the most powerful thing you can do in Standard right now, but unlike Mind’s Desire it’s balanced enough to not need emergency bannings. The format will (and is) adjusting to account for it. In the meanwhile, take advantage of those who haven’t caught up by running wild in the Ranked queues!