Crouching Magus, Hidden Strings


“Do you enjoy beating me with those terrible cards? Do you like that you play cards a sane person would normally cut from his draft decks? Do you!?”

“Why, yes; yes, I do.
This deck is f***ing awesome”

Recently, I’ve been playing fewer lands than you include in your average draft deck. In Standard. I’m going deep. And by deep, I mean bottom of the ocean, where god-knows-what-in-the-world-even-lives-there deep. I’m talking far beyond psychedelic-drug-experiment-in-the-neck-of-the-Norwegian-woods-deep.

I’m all about Kafka, Hegel, Greg Hatch.

For those of you who don’t know the last one, you’re missing out (if you don’t know the other two, go educate yourself; read a Wikipedia page at least). Greg is someone who streams MTGO, generally when Cube is on, but sometimes he finds a deck he is excited about in a constructed format, and he’ll go wild. He makes the craziest decks, and they are decent at the very least. And they definitely have a “rogue” factor to them… I don’t know what his latest version of the following deck is, but this is the version I’ve been playing:

(Please don’t click out of the article before you let me explain why I’m playing Bioshift in constructed.)

See? Deep like you licked the belly of an Amazonian frog. Before I get to the explanation of why you should even consider playing Retraction Helix and Akroan Skyguard at your next Standard tournament, let’s start off with perhaps the craziest part of this deck: the manabase.

16 Lands, 4 Mutavaults, 3 Colors

Sixteen lands is something you run in your aggressive draft deck, not something you run in your 60 card standard deck. This deck, which has an average converted mana cost of 1.25, actually pulls it off. To put this in context, compare it to something like Mono Black Devotion, which has an average converted mana cost of 2.86. Even Mono-Red Aggro clocks in close to the 2.0 mark.

With Springleaf Drums and so many one drops, it feels like you are playing 19 lands, which comes a lot closer to being in the “sane” range of things. It also helps fix your colors. None of your cards have double mana symbols, which makes Boros Charm the hardest card to cast, and any two different duals can cast that one, or any dual with a Springleaf Drum and a creature. Earlier versions of the deck played the admittedly awesome combo of Young Pyromancer and Phalanx Leader, but the Leader was too much for the mana to handle. You’d also really need four Springleaf Drums to even come close to reliably casting it, and drawing two of those is dreadful.

The four Mutavaults are there because, oddly enough, this deck is prone to flooding. Drawing a third land is already pretty bad, and drawing a fourth that is not a Mutavault is completely useless in almost every scenario. Yes, they make you mulligan a bit more, and it is possible you want one or two fewer in favor of a basic or two, which would also help make this list fairly budget friendly (just don’t cut any shocklands; those are 100% necessary). The Mutas also do their usual thing of attacking when you are out of things to cast, and with Springleaf Drum it can actually “filter” a mana to another color in a pinch.

With Nivmagus Elemental and Judge’s Familiar, you also have two creatures that can be cast off of any colored source in your deck, which helps make more hands keepable.

Our Heroes

The total number of creatures in this deck is eighteen, of which fourteen are one-drops. There is quite a bit of tension between having enough creatures in the deck to not fold to removal or not need to mulligan for any, and having as many spells as possible to target your creatures. With heroic creatures, you’d rather have two creatures and six spells that target those creatures than six creatures and two spells to target them. Your heroes start out small compared to other often-played cards, and you need to be able to invest in them to get the most out of them. As for the specific cards, let’s look at them one by one.

4 Akroan Crusader

This card is the best one-drop after Nivmagus Elemental, helping you beat removal spells and providing you with a bunch of chump blockers in a race or a bunch of attackers to swarm your opponent.

3 Favored Hoplite

The Hoplite is your second choice for a heroic one-drop, as it compares to cards like Akroan Skyguard and Hero of Iroas, which have relevant extra abilities but cost two. You can’t have too many two-drops, so Favored Hoplite is necessary, and it’s still very good; I just dislike drawing too many.

3 Judge’s Familiar

This little bird does not have heroic, nor does it have much other synergy with your spells, but it has flying, which makes it a good unit to cipher spells onto. It is also easy to cast, deals some damage, and most importantly: it slows your opponent’s removal down a turn, which is very useful in a fast deck like this one. The one turn often means the difference between winning and losing.

4 Nivmagus Elemental

This “crap rare” is the best card in the deck, frequently growing incredibly large while being easy to cast. It works fantastically with heroic creatures, letting your spell target your creatures (triggering their ability), then eating the spell off the stack if the spell’s effect isn’t necessary. With the amount of situational one-cost spells in this deck, that happens a lot.

2 Akroan Skyguard 2 Hero of Iroas

I have been playing a split of these two drops, but I know from A.J. Sacher’s stream (who worked on the deck with Greg Hatch for a while) that he favors the Skyguard because flying is often more relevant than the extra point of power and toughness. He isn’t playing as many two-mana auras in his 75 as I am or Hatch was. While I also cut down on the amount of Ordeals in the maindeck, I still have a couple extra in the sideboard, so in games two and three I’ve often liked the Hero quite a bit.

The “Unplayables”

If you thought our creatures were bad cards, you are probably not all too fond of our spell selection either. However, all the spells serve a function, and together, they can get you so far ahead in games it is not even funny. Okay, sorry, I’m lying. It is funny!

Our best spells, and our true “engine” cards are these two:

4 Trait Doctoring 4 Hidden Strings

Now, it might not seem like these do much (and in the case of Trait Doctoring, you are right; it doesn’t), but they both combine extremely well with heroic creatures and with Nivmagus Elemental. Hidden Strings is definitely the best, tapping down a potential blocker or crucial mana source, while triggering up to two creatures with heroic, often without making great use out of the untap/tap clause, which means it’s easy to eat with Nivmagus Elemental. Don’t do this the first time though: you want to encode it onto a creature (which doesn’t target the creature). That way, you can cast a copy of the card every time your encoded creature deals damage, and all those copies are extra yummy power food for the Magus.

Most of that goes for Trait Doctoring as well, except it only targets one creature, and it’s text is only very rarely relevant. It does happen though, and it is awesome when it does. Most often, it is used to change one of your shocklands into another one by changing the basic type on it. For example, you can change “Island” on your Hallowed Fountain into “Mountain” for a turn to cast your Akroan Crusader. Other uses I’ve come across so far include:

– Changing your opponent’s land into something else for a turn to prevent them from playing an Azorius Charm or something similar.
– Making a Chained to the Rocks fall off by changing “Mountain” to something else.
– Creating different colored tokens with Akroan Crusader to block Intimidate creatures (Lifebane Zombie) or to get around protection (Master of Waves).
– Screwing around with protection abilities.

Getting a creature that you encoded a spell on destroyed feels like you’re down cards, but remember that you already at the very least got some effect out of them, so it’s not as bad as it feels sometimes. Regardless, we’d like ways to protect our heroes from a downfall, which is where these come in:

2 Bioshift 4 God’s Willing 1 Mizzium Skin 1 Boros Charm

These eight spells help us manage removal. God’s Willing is the best by far, countering removal spells but also letting us get through blockers or block without losing a creature if we have to. Boros Charm is great, even protecting from Supreme Verdict, but it is harder to cast, and protecting a creature doesn’t grow it. Mizzium Skin can save multiple creatures at the cost of not triggering heroic. It is randomly useful to pump someone’s toughness, and it makes your opponent have to worry about losing their removal spell regardless of what mana we have up: white or blue. It is only good against removal in most situations, though, which is why I only want one main.

And then we have Bioshift, the card that most people advise to keep on the sidelines even in draft. Bioshift is good here, because it is an instant-speed way to target two creatures at the same time, potentially triggering heroic for both, and the effect makes it feel like you are playing with Arcbound Ravager in Standard. You want to kill this guy? Sure, I’ll just load up this other guy and kill you with that one. You can even pull off the “put it on my manland” trick against control. Just remember you cannot cast Bioshift with only one creature out!

3 Retraction Helix 2 Triton Tactics

This two-card combo consists of two cards that are useful enough on their own, either bouncing troublesome permanents while triggering heroic, or suddenly turning a losing race into a winning one. Together, they let you bounce up to four nonland permanents at instant speed. Yes, I have definitely said, “End of your turn, grow my guys twice, bounce all your guys, untap, swing for lethal,” on multiple occasions. It’s a pretty good feeling, let me tell you.

2 Ordeal of Purphoros

These two auras are your only form of real removal, so use them sparingly. They are also the two cards that are most prone to lead to you being blown out by removal spells. Be careful and try to add them to creatures either very early (when your opponent isn’t casting removal yet), or when you can immediately trigger them.

Even More Bad Cards?

In the sideboard, we have more cards you normally don’t see outside of a draft deck. They come in three categories: cards against (mass) removal, cards against fast aggro, and cards against big creatures.

Mizzium Skin, Boros Charm, and Murder Investigation are there to fight removal heavy decks, but they don’t always all come in everywhere. You need to be able to go up to a full set of Boros Charm against decks with Supreme Verdict, but they don’t have enough spot removal generally that you want Mizzium Skin, for example. Murder Investigation is great against sorcery-speed removal, like Verdict and Mizzium Mortars, but less so against instant-speed removal. I do board them in against Mono Black because they are very good if you can get them on early or if they tap to land a creature. Sacrificing a big guy to a Desecration Demon to break it up into a swarm is pretty good too.

Aqueous Form and Hands of Binding are great at getting your guys through (big) blockers, and Artisan of Forms is a pretty good version of Hero of Iroas, where it can copy giant creatures. It’s like it was targeted a bunch with only one spell. Hands of Binding is a card a lot of people will wonder why it isn’t in the main deck, but it’s not always great against fast aggro, and it is completely dead against a lot of control decks. You also can’t target your own creatures with it to prevent it from rotting away in your own hands, so I definitely prefer it in the sideboard.

The Swift Justice and the Ordeals come in for matchups where you are racing and where the red ordeal kills creatures. Making a giant attacker and gaining ten life is pretty good against very aggressive decks. Swift Justice is just another one-mana trick that they will have to play around after seeing it.

The last sideboard card, Glare of Heresy, mainly comes in against Detention Sphere decks, but it can come in against aggressive white decks as well (and in the mirror!).

Stringing Together Wins

This deck is not easy to play, and on Magic Online, it is even harder because of all the possibilities to misclick. There are a lot of triggers flying around, and it is easy to miss a little interaction here and there. Because you are often constrained mana-wise, sequencing your plays becomes very important. Try to figure out in what order you extract the most value out of your spells. If you have a hand with a Trait Doctoring, a heroic one-drop and a Judge’s Familiar, what do you play turn 1?

If you play the Familiar, then the heroic creature next turn, target it with Trait Doctoring and encode it onto the flier. It attacks, deals one, cipher triggers and targets the heroic creature. If you don’t pay anything next turn but just attack, you’ll have dealt five if the heroic creature was a Favored Hoplite, and six if it was Akroan Crusader. If you played the heroic creature first, you’ll deal six in either case, but not if they play a ground blocker. Getting used to thinking about these kinds of scenarios takes some time, so despite this being a fast deck, I’d advise trying to take it slow. You have a lot of decision to make early on and fewer as the game goes on, so take your time to figure out the right lines.

As for mulliganning, definitely don’t be afraid to keep one landers or you’ll be shipping a lot of hands back to Paris. You are more likely to keep a no-lander than a no-creature hand (don’t keep no-landers unless you have a very specific reason though), but you also don’t want a hand with only lands and creatures. Four lands is almost automatically a mulligan, unless the other three cards are Nivmagus, a heroic creature and Hidden Strings (preferably at least one land is a Mutavault).

This deck is an insane amount of fun, and if you like intricate aggro decks like Affinity, be sure to give it a shot!

Jay Lansdaal
iLansdaal on Twitter and MTGO