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The Bear and the Elves

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War of the Spark is approaching, with prereleases hitting stores in just over a week. If you haven’t been checking out the previews for the set, you absolutely should. The set is one of the most powerful and complex sets we’ve had in years and boy does it show!

What you might notice looking through the cards is that there’s a significant number of commons that feel like they might be uncommons or even rares in your average set. As Play Design member Andrew Brown mentioned on Twitter, that isn’t a coincidence:

That’s right, moving forward we’re getting some more cards that are somewhat more pushed than normal. This means a lot in the context of New World Order, a design philosophy Wizards of the Coast adapted around Zendikar due to concerns over complexity in the Time Spiral and Lorwyn blocks. In an effort to make cards easier to understand, they were toned down dramatically to the point of being almost simplified. As a result, the power level for commons largely went down across the board, with a few role players showing up from time to time.

With this shift, it’s clear that Wizards is making an effort to bring stronger cards to the forefront. One look at these cards, for example, shows you the kinds of things they’re putting forth:

Contentious Plan
Ob Nixilis's Cruelty
Heartfire

These cards are all considerably stronger than similar ones we’ve seen over the years. Contentious Plan is a cheaper, sorcery speed Steady Progress, Heartfire is a slightly more expensive instant speed Reckless Abandon, and Ob Nixilis's Cruelty is just one of the best removal spells we’ve seen in years. Just a few years ago we were getting the likes of Throttle and Flatten.

What this shows is that they’re finding ways to increase the overall power level of these commons without making them more complex in the process. Each of these cards feel very easy to understand and grasp, along with ones like Banehound and Pollenbright Druid. They don’t convolute the board with an overwhelming number of mechanics and interwoven abilities that can be headache inducing for newer players. At the same time, they bring an overall power bump that’s not just going to affect Limited, but also and especially Pauper.

While I intend to go into greater depth on these new cards in my Pauper set review for War of the Spark next week, there’s one specific card I wanted to talk about somewhat at length this week.

Vivien's Grizzly

The moment I read Vivien's Grizzly, I immediately thought “this card has potential in Elves.” The more I read the card and thought about it, however, the more I began to realize it had more than just potential. In fact, much like the potential we saw when Lead the Stampede was spoiled, the printing of this card alone could bring with it a whole new version of the deck. It’s so good, it might even finally replace Distant Melody once and for all.

Yes, I genuinely think it’s that good.

As bold of a statement as it is now, I said the same thing about Lead the Stampede. With that card, however, I wasn’t totally convinced. After all, it was a one-time card that could whiff easily, nowhere near the deep dive through your deck that Melody enables.

What makes the bear stand out so much against both of them is a few things:

  1. Its effect is repeatable. While it is expensive, you can activate it multiple times in a turn or over multiple turns to generate incremental card advantage.
  2. It’s Green. The main drawback of Distant Melody, aside from the fact that a well-timed Electrickery can blow it out, is that it can be very hard to cast it reliably. With only a handful of Blue mana sources in the deck, it’s not uncommon to be sitting on a Melody you can’t cast but would otherwise win you the game if you could.
  3. It’s a creature. What this means is that you can find it off Lead the Stampede, making it easier to find in a pinch as opposed to Distant Melody which will often find itself going straight to the bottom of your deck.

Each of these works as a small piece of why I feel Vivien's Grizzly is the superior choice for Elves. Individually, they seem like they don’t mean too much. What’s more, the effect of the card is certainly costly, something that has made players of the format somewhat skeptical at first glance. I’m going to go into each of these categories and explain why they’re such a big deal, including a few insights into how the London Mulligan might shape the deck’s play if it stays as a permanent rule of Magic.

First, let me show you the 75 I’m using as a starting point:


As you can see I’ve made a few interesting choices to this list. Elvish Visionary is one in particular that has always been on the edge of being good but not quite good enough. Additionally, I’m back on the Wellwisher plan a bit more with Burn performing a bit less than it was a month or so ago. With the engine of Vivien's Grizzly especially, Essence Warden may still prove better for certain metas, but for now we’ll stick with this.

Another small note worth making is that I was actually playing around with Sagittars' Volley and do think the card is better in Melody based lists. It takes down active Delvers, Kor Skyfishers, and wipes out small fliers at the same time. Given that we’re focusing on finding creatures a lot more, I’ve moved back toward Scattershot Archers for the purposes of this list.

With that, let’s take a closer look at my three reasons why Vivien's Grizzly seems to be the real deal.

1. The Effect is Repeatable

First and foremost is that Vivien's Grizzly has an effect that can be used again and again. This leads to some interesting modes of play. The most obvious is that with a Priest of Titania on your battlefield you can start drawing an absurd number of cards per turn. If you have Quirion Ranger as well as other mana sources for the elves themselves, it gets even more out of hand. When you start adding Lys Alana Huntmaster and some Nettle Sentinels with Birchlore Rangers into the mix, such a combination can very well draw you your entire deck.

Even if you can’t draw into your entire deck, still being able to continuously draw creatures (assuming your opponent doesn’t have a removal spell) helps you stay in the game longer. I can’t tell you how often I find myself with multiple mana at the end of a turn cycle with nothing to do with it. The Grizzly gives you something to do with that mana, letting you draw creature after creature every turn. It can also help rebuild your board more easily after being hit by a sweeper or at the very least get rid of your land draws. It also can’t draw you your non-creature spells like Lead the Stampede or Spidersilk Armor.

While the ability itself might not be able to draw you those cards the way Distant Melody can, another card can. Let’s say you’re at the end of the game and you’re looking for something to close it out after you’ve been combo drawing with Priest of Titania and the like. You need either a Viridian Longbow or a Harsh Sustenance and you can easily take them down. How do you draw into it? This card:

Elvish Visionary

As I mentioned above, I’ve always liked the card but it’s just barely been not good enough for Pauper’s version of Elves. Now, however, with enough Priest mana, you can actually cycle through your deck and figure out the exact point where the needed card might be and play Elvish Visionary to draw it. Picking up Harsh Sustenance especially will win you the game on the spot, something that couldn’t always be said with Melody.

2. Vivien's Grizzly is Green

The second major factor is that the Grizzly is Green. This is a huge deal for Elves because it means that the deck might actually be able to avoid splashing Blue for Distant Melody. Many players think that just because the deck has the capabilities to play off-color cards that they should. Doing this, however, actually dilutes the deck and causes issues in playability.

Trying to cast something strictly off of Birchlore Rangers, for example, is dangerous because it’s not hard to lose all four Rangers in a single game. The only reason something like Harsh Sustenance is playable is because of the creature, though. We play this card and similar versions like Gruesome Fate, Massive Raid, and Mob Justice because if we’re at a place in the game where we’d want to play these cards, we usually have a copy of Birchlore Rangers.

To cast Distant Melody we need to have either a Birchlore Rangers or dig and find our lone Island in the deck. With Sylvan Ranger this has been less of an issue. This Ranger also has the added benefit of shuffling the deck (relevant after Lead the Stampede has been cast) or even finding a second Forest if needed instead of the Island, thereby helping iron out our land drops.

Unfortunately, there are still times where Sylvan Ranger is just a land stapled to a small body, meaning in a game where you’ve already seen six or more lands, it feels like a tremendously dead draw. What’s more, there’s nothing worse than seeing one land in your opener and having it be the only Island in the list.

Thankfully, I do believe the London Mulligan will help iron this out in either direction. Where before you might have mulliganed down to 5 cards and seen that lone Island show up, now you have two additional cards you can see to try hitting an actual Forest. In fact, when play-testing with the London Mulligan on Magic Online over the last week, I’ve found myself having less non-games as a result of it. I think the rule has a lot of staying potential as a result, even if it has some very glaring issues in formats like Modern, Legacy, and Vintage currently.

Lastly on the topic of off-color cards, I want to mention another new card that looked somewhat promising from War of the Spark:

Spark Reaper

Spark Reaper is so close to being what we want in Elves. The effect is cheaper than Vivien's Grizzly and we often have no shortage of expendable creatures, especially when there’s a Lys Alana Huntmaster on the board. However, it’s a Black creature and as such costs Black mana to be able to cast. At that point it still has the same castability issues as Distant Melody and I’d rather play the card that will draw me enough cards outright to win me the game if I had the choice between them. Still, being able to sacrifice creatures being targeted by removal and both draw cards and gain life from it is no joke. I don’t think it’ll be good enough, but it’s definitely quite close.

3. Vivien's Grizzly is a Creature

The last thing Vivien's Grizzly (and yes, Spark Reaper also) has going for it is that it’s a creature. What this means is that you can easily find it off of Lead the Stampede, allowing for you to be able to draw it more consistently over the course of the game. Lead can’t find Distant Melody, after all, and I’ve had many games where I put multiple Melodies on the bottom of my deck. Replacing them with Grizzly means I’ll always be able to pick up this amazing engine when I’m able.

The fact that it’s a creature allows it to stay on the board longer also, meaning you can get some serious mileage out of the ability as highlighted in point one. It is somewhat susceptible to removal, being only a 2/3, but it can still attack and block effectively, especially once you have something like a Spidersilk Armor online.

All told, I’m very excited to jam this fantastic new creature. Vivien's Grizzly seems like it could very well be the real deal for Pauper Elves. Even if it doesn’t outright replace Distant Melody, it will at least create a different version of Elves as we know it currently.

I predicted the possibility of a Mono-Green build when Lead the Stampede came out and while people tried it for awhile, it ultimately didn’t pan out. Even if it didn’t quite change the deck that dramatically, it still had a major impact on the archetype itself. If nothing else, I expect Vivien's Grizzly to do the same, and have a very distinct impact on the deck, even if it doesn’t cause it to undergo a major overhaul.

If Vivien's Grizzly doesn’t quite make the cut in Elves, I still think it has great potential for other decks. It’s one of the best engine cards we’ve seen in years for the format and could easily spawn decks we have yet to see or sneak its way into less played decks. Like many new cards, it has a ridiculous amount of potential to see play and I can’t wait. War of the Spark is looking really amazing and there’s still a few more days to go before we see the complete set!

What do you think of the format’s awesome new Green creature, or even about all the other amazing new cards for Pauper in War of the Spark? Let me know in the comments below!