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Ironroot Chef: Battle Orzhov Pontiff

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Divinity is a potent power. While many throughout Magic’s stories claimed it as their own, all had proven quite mortal in their failings—even the literal Gods of Theros. Playing with the power of religion is a dangerous opportunity.

It takes skill to navigate it through, and that’s exactly what this week’s challenger brings in spades:

Patrick Chapin is among the most skilled Magic players in the world. With decades of experience, a Pro Tour victory, and Pro Tour Hall of Fame membership, there’s little doubt if anyone could handle the heat this week’s flavor brings it could be him:

Vying to prove his own fine flavor handling, Ironroot Chef Mike Linnemann will have to demonstrate that skill in decks and play isn’t the final authority in the flavor stadium: Bringing out the taste of cards is quite different from maximizing the odds of winning by playing them.

Who’s deck-building cuisine will reign supreme?

Orzhov Pontiff

This is Battle Orzhov Pontiff.

Challenger Patrick Chapin

Battle Orzhov Pontiff ? Ironroot Chef | Patrick Chapin

  • Special Ingredient (0)
  • Commander (0)

Obzedat, Ghost Council

At a high level, to build around Orzhov Pontiff is to build around the Orzhov guild and the Church of Deals. Obzedat, Ghost Council is in charge of the guild and, as such, is our Commander. Obzedat may be in charge, but Teysa Karlov is the official envoy for the guild and their champion.

Teysa, Orzhov Scion

Beneath Obzedat and Teysa are the various cartels, run by kingpins like Blood Baron of Vizkopa, High Priest of Penance, and Orzhov Pontiff (this week’s secret ingredient). The kingpings have a variety of underlings beneath them, with each cartel trying it’s best to gain favor with Obzedat—as well as making the most money it can.

Their business is built around The Church, so I’ve included all of the white and black priests in the game. However, there are actually a lot of jobs in the Orzhov guild besides absolvers and other priestly roles. The Orzhov do a lot of extorting of people, and this line of work requires enforcers, such as the Syndicate Enforcer. They also rely on administrators, such as the Syndic of Tithes, to ensure that everyone is paying.

Knight of Obligation is an example of the sorts of Knights in the Orzhov guild, that are paragons of virtue or vice (as Orzhov Knights need not be known for a “positive” quality).

While there aren’t many Angels in the Orzhov guild, they are occasionally Angels that end up disillusioned with the Boros, and Orzhov is where they tend to turn. Angel of Despair and Deathpact Angel are two examples.

More commonly, the Orzhov guild is rife with spirits like Belfry Spirit, so I included many Spirits specifically laid claim to by the Orzhov. Even more well known, however, is their use of Thrulls, like the Kingpin's Pet and Maw of the Obzedat, who are generally lower on the totem pole.

I considered including Fallen Empires Thrulls as well, initially wanting to play one hundred nineteen cards alongside the Pontiff (as there are currently one hundred nineteen Cardinals that are eligible to possibly become pope some day). However, this deck is built around Orzhov Pontiff, not the real-life Pope, and the Orzhov Pontiff would always adhere to the letter of the law. Commander rules require exactly one hundred cards, so one hundred it is. That said, some people play ten-card sideboards, so if you need one, may I suggest these:

While it was tempting to include Erebos, God of the Dead, Heliod, God of the Sun, and Athreos, God of Passage, as a holy trinity of gods, the Orzhov worship profit, and there’s a reason they do so at the Godless Shrine. Likewise, you won’t find Wrath of God in this list. Instead, you’ll find Corrupt, Extortion, Blackmail, Duress, and Cry of Contrition, which more accurately reflect the values of the Orzhov Pontiff.

And finally, the basics?

Why, well, it just so happens that the Orzhov Syndicate has its own . . . 

Really? The only foils in the deck are the basic lands? That’s just how the Orzhov do business . . . 

Ironroot Chef Mike Linnemann

My deck today is both Christianity’s crusades and Islam’s caliphate expansion. It is a Soldier deck, with a choice to be made when Orzhov Pontiff enters the battlefield: You can be bolstered by faith or hate those who worship differently from you. It begs the question whether you are haunted by your past choice, and whether you will choose bigotry or tolerance the next time you are asked.

I chose Thalia, Guardian of Thraben as my tiny leader, as she represents both the best and worst that a religious warrior could be: a guardian and a bigot.

The Pontiff is to represent Pope Urban II, not mere Pope Francis with a comparison to ineffective popes. This particular Pope was the force behind the first crusade to the Holy Land. He gave a speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095:

This royal city [Jerusalem], therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succor, because, as we have already said, God has conferred upon you above all nations great glory in arms. Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of heaven.

— From the Robert the Monk account from Dana C. Munro’s Urban and the Crusaders

Change that Pope to an Ayatollah or Grand Imam and Jerusalem to Constantinople, and you can see how easily words are twisted and heinous acts justified. If you have a good hour and want to really learn more, Extra Credits does a phenomenal job of bringing a layman’s view into major acts of history.

The first Crusade overtook Jerusalem, after Pope Urban II’s urging, and crusader rule only lasted a mere ninety years. The sultan Saladin, after unifying Egypt and Syria into his Abbasid caliphate, retook the city. Crusaders would retake Jerusalem twice in the 1200s.

The crusader legacy is a thousand years of animosity between Christians and Muslims, which is still very much alive today. They also established the idea in Europe that Christians needed to keep an influence in the Middle East and return to fight again once where they lost Jerusalem.

They did, and they lost, repeatedly. Crusaders also built a ton of churches in the Middle East, which are showcased in the lands. As for the Plains selections, I would encourage a variety of depictions from sand plains to steppes and grain-filled fields.

When you play this deck, you can “switch” sides and bounce around in history or play with allusions to today. Hidden in a pretty simple Soldier deck are morality, order, and the evils of the Magic color white: good in their own mind.

(The Swamp is Onslaught card number 342.)

The Vote

Below, you can read the judges’ scoring to see how Nate and Stybs cast their ballots. However, this is your chance to score the winner of Battle Orzhov Pontiff.

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The Judging

Nate’s Judgment

Nathan Holt @walktheplanes

Nate’s the host of Walking the Planes, a documentary series about Magic: The Gathering with a healthy dose of sketch comedy (for value).

As Pope Francis bids farewell to my home city of Philadelphia, I am welcomed by the arrival of his bizarro evil Magic equivalent—the Orzhov Pontiff. Orzhov is my favorite Ravnican guild. As a stern wizard myself, I relish being cruel while feigning righteousness. But enough about me, onto the decks!

Challenger Patrick Chapin

Thrull Champion
Your full commitment to brewing a tribute to the Syndicate is admirable. You're comprehensive in repping the guild, and you stayed on-theme very well.

I can't give you much for boldness, though, as I'm mostly seeing that tribute built from Orzhov cards directly from Ravnica block's representation and a computer search for the word "priest." The former displays a lazy reuse of the work WotC's creative team already did, and the latter is too monotonous for my taste. I've shown a liking for word searches in the past, but only from a more varied lexicon that hits on multiple themes.

My favorite inclusions in your deck are the illustrations of Orzhovian-style evil deeds (Blackmail, Extortion, Corrupt, Cry of Contrition, etc.). Those really paint a nice picture for me. I wish more of the deck were built on this theme. Oh, and those Fallen Empires Thrulls in the sideboard? I love 'em. They may not be technically Orzhov, but they were the prototypes for the mindless slaves that the Orzhov used to build their church, and I like that you shouted them out.

Creativity: 2

Boldness: 1

Adherence to the theme: 3

Ironroot Chef Mike Linneman

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
This deck is sweet—which is to say it has great flavor, not that its theme is sweet. On the contrary, its theme chronicles the unfortunate hypocrisy of wars fought in the name of God. The Soldiers in your army are zealously persecuting their opponents, whether they fight for a Christian crusade or an Islamic jihad. They sacrifice themselves to advance their cause: tribal bloodshed with holy pretenses. I find this premise a very bold and creative way to interpret Orzhov Pontiff.

Also bold is your interpretation of Thalia. In Innistrad, we saw her leading a holy war against literal monsters. It is sad to see her righteous violence turned against humanity itself.

I only wish you had adhered a bit more to theme you so poetically describe—that Orzhov Pontiff presents you with the choice of bolstering your own worshippers' faith, or hate those who worship differently than you. We see that theme presented in cards like Zealous Persecution and Unruly Mob. I wanted more illustrations of that dichotomy, and I think a few Soldiers surely could have been cut to further emphasize the Pontiff's dual agendas.

Overall, great work. In the past, you have shown strong creativity, at times wild and out of control. This deck harnesses that creativity into clearly communicated themes while also retaining your unique voice. Bravo.

Creativity: 3

Boldness: 3

Adherence to the theme: 2

Stybs’s Judgment

Adam Styborski @the_stybs

Adam is the Content Manager for Gathering Magic. He's a casual player at heart and weekly columnist for MagicTheGathering.com. He also travels the country for Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage, and he shares his Pauper Cube everywhere.

Challenger Patrick Chapin

Setessan Battle Priest
Commander is a tricky way to prepare a flavorful dish. Unable to use four copies of the secret ingredient, pulling the flavor of one card out into a pile of ninety-nine others has been a stumbling point for many competitors.

I feel you succeeded in ways others haven’t.

Looking at the real-world analogues (one hundred nineteen eligible Cardinals for the papal seat was not something I was aware of!) and trying to fit all the ways the Orzhov operate was successful. Using a ten-card sideboard just to shoehorn in more Thrulls was a bit cheeky, but I appreciate the option of it: Your deck as a whole without it was thoroughly Orzhov.

There were some flaws, too. While piling up very priest in Magic is sound on the surface, priests like Abzan Battle Priest and Setessan Battle Priest aren’t how the Guild of Deals handles business. In your exuberance to celebrate flavor, I fear you added ingredients without considering if it would match well.

Nonetheless, I was impressed by your thorough-yet-pithy handling of showing of the Orzhov and their religiosity. Your score reflects the straightforward approach you took:

Creativity: 2

Boldness: 2

Adherence to the theme: 3

Ironroot Chef Mike Linnemann

God-Favored General
Chef Linnemann, unlike your competitor who doubled down on the Orzhov side of flavor with a hint of real-world references, you chose to eschew all that is Orzhov for historical allegory.

It’s a tough line to take.

Tiny Leaders is a format that flared out. Was your goal to choose a once-hot, now not format to reflect the changing context that the Pope has played in global history? If so, I like that, but it seems an accidental choice. It’s also a duel-first format, great for the historical context you painted.

Your approach to history itself was straightforward, using the flavor of Orzhov Pontiff’s choice to bolster or bash as suitable for the story you tell. Choosing sides and showing the fallacy in both was clever. I appreciated the audacity of capturing the good and evil as one look of religion: The Orzhov ostensibly serve both themselves and the fallacy of belief together. I wish, though, that your ingredient and that choice apparent of support-mine-or-diminish-yours tribalism of religion was bigger.

Your scores reflect the boldness you took but taking issue with the illegal deck you constructed: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben cannot be the leader for a black-and-white deck!

Creativity: 2

Boldness: 3

Adherence to the theme: 2


Voting closes midnight Thursday, and the first winner will be announced Friday (10/2/2015). Follow @IronrootChef on Twitter for the final score and victory announcement and to share your ideas for secret ingredients. Chairman Holt will continue to use your suggestions to challenge our chefs to the core.

And if you think you have what it takes to challenge the chefs, send an email to IronrootChef AT gmail DOT com with all of your flavorful qualifications. We’re looking for new Ironroot Chefs and competitors, and you could be the next to take a shot at impressing the judges.


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