In Magic: the Gathering, every slot in your deck is precious. With the Dragons of Tarkir metagame in full-swing, I’m going to help you decide whether Ultimate Price or Bile Blight is better in your deck, and see if we can’t gain some knowledge on the nature of flex slots in the process.
Tug-Of-War: Flex Slots vs. Synergistic Core
I like to think of every deck as some mixture of a synergistic core and flex slots.
The synergistic core are the cards that contribute to the primary gameplan of the
archetype. It can be a specific linear game plan, like Jeskai Ascendancy combo, or it can be something more abstract, like “beat down.” Either way, some number of cards needs to be included for the archetype to function; these are the cards that define the archetype.
Flex-slots are those cards that are included in the deck that are not essential to the synergistic core, they are cards that could be replaced by other card choices, and the deck would still function. Further, there is a spectrum to how much freedom you have with different flex slots, more on that later.
It’s usually a ratio: the more synergy-based the archetype is, the less flex slots available and vice versa.
The most rigid synergy based deck in recent memory is probably the Blue-Green Devotion list that just Top 8ed the SCG Portland Open
Devotion to Blue Splash Green
By Nick Peternell
4x Hypnotic Siren
4x Kiora’s Follower
4x Stratus Dancer
4x Frost Walker
4x Silumgar Sorcerer
4x Thassa, God of the Sea
4x Master of Waves
4x Collected Company
4x Thornwood Falls
4x Temple of Mystery
4x Yavimaya Coast
2x Wall of Frost
4x Encase in Ice
2x Disdainful Stroke
Look at all those 4-ofs! The most obvious way to see the core of the deck is to see what cards they include 4-of, usually this will give you a good idea. Back when I was playing Mono-U in RTR-Theros Standard, I would’ve run 6 Thassa, God of the Seas if I could have, even with the legendary downside. The synergistic core of the deck was just that established, and that powerful.
This new incarnation of the deck is the same, it’s truly difficult to find a flex slot among the bunch. If anything we’re to be considered a flex slot here, it would be the Frost Walkers, since they suffer to token strategies. But they couldn’t be replaced with just anything! I actually managed to get in contact with Peternell, and he said that if the meta was dominated by GR dragons, Icefeather Aven would go in that slot, Omenspeaker in a mono red meta, Frost Walker in a Esper Dragons meta. I think it is Frost Walker’s time to shine.
But this deck really is something as far as driving home the point I’m making, the Collected Company core necessitates that the deck is filled to the brim with creatures, while the Devotion core is gluttonous for blue mana symbols. The whole driving synergy is so restrictive that the mainboard only has room to move around two slots!
Let’s look at a very different beast. The ever-looming rhino in the darkness… Abzan.
By Owen Turtenwald
4x Warden of the First Tree
4x Rakshasa Deathdealer
4x Fleecemane Lion
3x Brimaz, King of Oreskos
4x Anafenza, the Foremost
4x Siege Rhino
1x Tasigur, the Golden Fang
2x Ultimate Price
4x Hero’s Downfall
4x Self-Inflicted Wound
2x Ultimate Price
4x Drown in Sorrow
1x Wingmate Roc
Believe it or not, there was a time when some Abzan players swore by the potency of the unholy trinity of Courser of Kruphix, Siege Rhino, and Sylvan Caryatid. But in time, even these cards were proven inessential to the Rhino’s victory.
In fact, if we were to treat Abzan as one archetype, there is no sacred cow, free of the chopping block. That is, besides the Rhino.
However, it would be misleading to do that, for as of now I think we can divide Abzan solidly into three distinct archetypes, Abzan Aggro, Abzan Control, and Abzan Megamorph. They all have their own distinct cores and flex slots, some more than others. Abzan control, for example, has the most flex slots, since it can vary from heavy control with walkers, to a more midrange bend. Abzan Megamorph most likely has the least flex slots, since the megamorph package takes up eight of your cards.
So how can we determine which cards in a list are the flex slots?
Well, first let me clarify. This term, flex slots, that I keep throwing around. It’s not all that cut and dry. People are going to argue endlessly about what decks are crucial to what archetypes, I’m certainly no authority on the topic. So there are gray areas, yes, but there are also more obvious cases.
Further, just because there is a slot is flexible doesn’t mean that it can be replaced with just anything! For example, what are the flex slots in Abzan Aggro. Well, I think I can safely say that, in Owen’s list
2x Warden of the First Tree
3x Brimaz, King of Oreskos
1x Anafenza, the Foremost
1x Tasigur, the Golden Fang
2x Ultimate Price
and 2x Hero’s Downfall
are all flex slots. But that doesn’t mean that the decks going to win games if you replace Ultimate Price and Hero’s Downfall with creatures.
See, even though I think they are flex slots as far as the definition of the term I’m throwing around, but they still need to be removal spells of some sort. This is one of the ways this whole flex slot thing courts a kind of grayish area.
I think it helps a little if you mentally divide your flex slots into reactive and proactive, reactive slots can only be replaced with reactive cards, and proactive slots can only be replaced by proactive cards. Usually. Once you get an intuitive feel for deckbuilding, you learn that rules like this are meant to be broken.
Flex slots are where you get to show your creativity as a deckbuilder, and where you can exploit knowledge of the meta.
Owen made a number of bold decisions with his flex slots in the construction of this deck for Standard Super League, and if they’re good decisions they have reasons behind them.
So that’s the first thing you should try to do when you’re deciding on your flex slots: construct a cogent argument as to why that specific card is the right one for handling your expected meta.
Next thing you do, is test it like crazy, especially against the decks you’re hoping to target.
So who is Turtenwald gunning for with this list?
Taking Advantage of Metagame Anticipation
No decklist exists in a vaccum. Turtenwald’s list is very decisive about who it expects to face in the Standard Super League. I’ll focus on the mainboard for the sake of brevity.
Firstly, the inclusion of four Thoughtseize, and a mana base that throws caution to the wind seems to indicate that he wasn’t thinking he was going to run into red deck wins anywhere. No copies of Dromoka’s Command anticipated lots of control lists, as anyone who’s been keeping track of standard knows how insane that card can be in matchups where both sides have creatures that aren’t hexproof dragons.
This list wants to curve out into Rhino, plain and simple. It’s got more creatures, and is lower to the ground than many incarnations of Abzan agro. So I think we can safely say that one of the primary objectives of this particular build is to maximize proactive slots, in order to keep laying down threats against the Esper Dragons lists he anticipates.
So when picking his reactive slots, he picks Thoughtseize, Downfall, and a pair of Ultimate Prices.
Thoughtseize is the best card available for Abzan decks to use to interact with Esper Dragons. So that’s an easy 4-of. But why downfall and more importantly Ultimate Price?
I’d like to guess that Owen was “hedging his bets.” There’s a lot of upside to using your flex slots for cards with high versatility. Hero’s downfall for example, is rarely dead, it’s the most versatile removal spell in standard available for its cost. If he was really gunning all the way for Esper Dragons, however, Abzan charm is clearly better, simply because its less dead in that matchup. However, Abzan charm is one of the worst cards to have in hand when your opponent drops a turn one mountain into Foundry Street Denizen.
So even though, his build certainly predicted to not have to run into Atarka Red/RDW, it took a couple steps to not be simply dead in the water.
The inclusion of Ultimate Price is a further example of this. Even though his extremely painful mana base could likely cast bile blights without much issue, he hedged his bets by playing a card that was just as good against RG dragons as it is against Bile Blight.
But we’re not building our decks to play in the Standard Super League, so what’s the meta like for the average grinder?
Of course, metagames are by their nature location-specific. You should build towards what you expect to see, not towards what I’m telling you I expect to see, because I don’t live where you play. But if you had absolutely no idea, I’d tell you that the decks I want to be able to ideally beat consistently are: Esper Dragons (the clear top dog), Atarka Red (the best positioned to take advantage of Espers position of dominance), Abzan Aggro (arguably the best incarnation of the Abzan archetype for handling Esper, while also maintaining reasonable matchup percentages against the rest of the field), and Megamorph decks of all shapes and sizes.
There were upwards of twenty copies of Den Protecter in the Top 8 at GP Toronto. I think the card has ably proven itself as the best way for midrange strategies to combat the Esper Dragons decks.
So we have to make a lot of considerations when we choose our flex slots, lets see if I can come up with a nice list.
So in summation, and in no particular order of importance, we need to do the following in regards to our flex slots:
- Figure out which cards actually are the flex slots. Remember, this is not an exact science.
- Figure out whether the slot in question needs to be proactive or reactive.
- Keep your deck’s synergistic core in mind, even though it’s a flex slot, you’re going to want it to contribute to your overarching game plan, especially if it’s a proactive slot.
- Create a picture of the expected metagame.
- Construct a cogent argument as to why your card choice is the right one for the expected metagame.
- Test the card against anticipated matchups, see if the practice matches up with the theory.
Now to the cards in question.
Ultimate Price VS. Bile Blight, The Real Fight of the Century
So you’ve wisely decided that you want to include a two mana black removal spell into your deck and you’re trying to figure out which ones right for you.
As I’ve said, Magic is meaningless in a vacuum, and these flex slots decision are useless to talk about without context. So, first, what deck are you playing?
Luckily for you, you’re playing one of the best decks in standard, staying true to one of the pillars of standard, in the face of naysayers. You’re playing
By Lucas Siow
4x Siege Rhino
4x Courser of Kruphix
3x Fleecemane Lion
3x Den Protector
4x Abzan Charm
3x Hero’s Downfall
2x Bile Blight
1x Read the Bones
1x Crux of Fate
1x Dromoka’s Command
3x Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
1x Nissa, Worldwaker
4x Temple of Silence
4x Temple of Malady
4x Windswept Heath
3x Sandsteppe Citadel
3x Llanowar Wastes
2x Caves of Kolios
1x Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1x Nissa, Worldwaker
1x Read the Bones
1x Crux of Fate
2x Dromoka’s Command
2x Drown in Sorrow
3x Arashin Cleric
1x Murderous Cut
1x Silence the Believers
1x Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
So we know we want a two mana removal spell… at this point its just a matter of finding out which one is better for the anticipated meta. Lucas Siow reserves two slots for such a removal spell, and he evidently thinks Bile Blight is the right choice, but do we agree?
I think a good way to approach this is to figure out which relevant cards that Ultimate Price hits that Bile Blight misses and vice versa. See, I was going to do a venn diagram, but the overlap doesn’t matter all that much. All looking at the overlapping section will do will be to solidify the opinion that these two cards are fighting for a similar slot.
So here’s what I came up with.
Paying the Ultimate Price
-Courser of Kruphix
-Sidisi, Undead Visier
-Flipped-Up Deathmist Raptor
-Tasigur, the Golden Fang
-Brimaz, King of Oreskos
-Surrak, the Hunt Caller
-Wingmate Roc (sort of)
Contracting Bile Blight
-Sidisi, Brood Tyrant
-Rakshasa Deathdealer (Kind of)
Pros and Khans
If we take the two cards for merely their text they each have distinct natural upsides.
The destroy clause on Ultimate Price serves as unconditional removal, the card can’t be Dromoka’s Commanded out of range for example, but also opens it up to regeneration effects, and Valorous Stance.
Bile Blight has the natural upside of being able to hit multiple creatures, and to de-incentivize your opponent from over-extending. So all the creatures it can hit, it can hit multiples of, thereby gaining the ability to generate card advantage, something Ultimate Price cannot do.
Further, the conditionality of Bile Blight can be mitigated if you’re playing a deck with creatures. You are capable of using it as an effective combat trick if you are the sort of deck that turns creatures sideways.
The lists can help us but they don’t tell the whole story. For one, there is more to both cards than just the creatures they can answer. For example, one less black symbol on the ultimate price cost makes a hugely relevant difference in its ability to be cast in a wider range of decks, perhaps only on a black splash.
Blights two black pips can be incredibly restrictive, and being able to support those requirements in your mana base should be your first consideration on deciding between the two.
How do I know if my mana base can support Bile Blight, you ask? Whenever I’m wondering anything about mana bases, I just consult Frank Karsten’s super helpful article right here (http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/frank-analysis-how-many-colored-mana-sources-do-you-need-to-consistently-cast-your-spells/). According to the article, if you want to have BB on turn 2 90% of the time, you need 20 black mana sources in your deck. I don’t think we have to be casting Bile Blight turn 2 every time, so for our purposes I’m going to say that anywhere upwards of 18 sources will cut it, with 20 being in the back of our minds as the more factually correct number.
So that’s our first conclusion: If you don’t have enough at least 18 black sources in your mana base, then you should probably think twice about running Bile Blights, and it isn’t until somewhere around 20 sources that the spell will work at its best.
But our GP winning Abzan deck is running one less black source than I recommend, and three less than Karsten recommends to support his Bile Blights. Worked fine for him, but you should be cautioned. If you find yourself going higher than 2 Bile Blights, you should probably up the black sources.
So What’s Better in the Meta?
When I was making that list above, dividing the creatures that get hit by Ultimate Price and not by Bile Blight and vice-versa I have to admit that I was surprised by the fact that Ultimate Price has a longer list, and I think that this is misleading. For one, the Bile Blight list contains a couple things like “tokens,” and “morphs,” that include more than a few cards. Raise the Alarm, Hordeling Outburst, Dragon Fodder, and Secure the Wastes all see a fair amount of play, and that’s four cards in the one “token” category.
Secondly, I don’t think it can be understated how important it is to be able to hit a face-down Den Protector. This card is everywhere! Bile Blight is also capable of dealing with the morph engine more efficiently in that it can remove multiple Deathmist Raptors, if your opponent has suddenly reanimated multiple Raptors face up. This is one of the reasons you’ll often see opponents who reanimate multiple Raptors bringing one back face-up and another face-down.
Against which decks in the meta is Bile Blight clearly preferable? Against Abzan Aggro, Atarka Red, Jeskai Tokens, and Jeskai Aggro, seems a fair estimation for me. Atarka Red and Tokens seem obvious. Abzan aggro because Ultimate Price misses too many creatures, pretty much everything besides Warden of the First Tree. Against Jeskai aggro, it’s simply that you’re usually going to feel really bad facing down a Mantis Rider with Ultimate Price in hand. That being said, of those decks only Atarka Red and Abzan aggro are really prevalent in this meta, but it’s a diverse standard, and you still have a good likelihood to run into the rest at a long tournament.
Against which decks in the meta is Ultimate Price clearly preferable? GRx Dragons, Mardu Aggro, UWx Heroic and Green Devotion decks. I prefer Ultimate Price against GR Dragons because Blight misses not only the Dragons, but Courser of Kruphix. Against Mardu aggro, I like the ability to not only hit Seeker of the Way, Goblin Rabblemaster Soulfire Grand Master, but to also hit the Dragons (besides Kolaghan). I don’t think any of these decks (unless Mardu’s on the rise after a recent finish at GP Toronto) are really very prevalent in the meta. UWx Heroic is easy, Bile Blight can’t hit their big threat, and Ultimate Price can at least try to kill it at any point in the game.
You don’t want either card against control.
There are a few decks that I think lie in a gray are where it’s not clear which spell is preferable.
The Sidisi Whip deck that won the SCG Portland Open comes to mind. Bile Blight hitting Sidisi, Brood Tyrant seems like big game, but Ultimate Price takes care of Sidisi, Undead Vizier and Courser of Kruphix. I think I’d give this tie to Bile Blight, because if you don’t have removal for an early Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, you’re in trouble, and the niche ability to take care of half of Hornet Queen is pretty nice.
Against Abzan Control I think the ability to take care of Courser of Kruphix is great, but more and more even the slower Abzan decks are including Fleecemane Lion and the whole morph package, and neither of them are hitting Rhino anyway. I think we prefer Bile Blight for the ability to handle these cards. I just want to reiterate this point because it’s so awesome for Bile Blight fans everywhere, even the slower Abzan decks are turning on your mainboard Bile Blights now with some of their best cards.
As far as the new rogue decks go, against Selesya Aggro I’m going to give the win to Ultimate Price. Yes, I still think Bile Blight is better against the morph package, and there is the possibility of Valorous Stance shenanigans, I think hitting Brimaz is too crucial. For the Ug Devotion list, it’s a tough call. The ability to hit multiple creatures can be game breaking, but the fact that Shorecrasher Elemental can be pumped out of range is rough. I’m going to give it to Ultimate Price for that reason.
The Stormbreath Rule
Maybe you’ve come this far and you’ve realized that you want to switch your Ultimate Prices for Bile Blights…
Stop right there!
Have you thought about how much removal you have for Stormbreath Dragon?
If you have less than 4 removal spells for Stormbreath Dragon, I’d highly recommend something other than Bile Blight in that flex slot. That doesn’t mean it has to be Ultimate Price. For example, if you have ways to fill your graveyard rapidly, Murderous Cut might be right for you, but that’s a whole other story.
Again, I implore you, remove those Stormbreaths, don’t run Blight if you have less than 4 removal spells for the Dragon. There are a lot of decks that have problem with this.
Our list does… ok. Stormbreath Dragon is a weak spot, but we do have 3 Hero’s Downfall, 1 Crux of Fate. Plus you can count 3 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and even Thoughtseize if you’re generous.
And the Winner is…
If your mana base can support it, and you pass the Stormbreath Rule, Bile Blight is the better card for the current meta. The primary factors in my decision is the rise in the prevalence of Megamorph, the decreasing presence of GRx Dragons, and the fact that even the slow Abzan decks now turn on your Bile Blights.
Being able to hit a morphed Den Protector can be huge.
Further, if the best deck is indeed Esper Dragons, as so many say it is, then Atarka Red decks are the best positioned to capitalize on their dominance. Bile Blights performance in matchups against Atarka Red is too impactul to neglect.