Michael’s Heliod losing in top 4 to a UG+ deck
My favorite era of cEDH
— Rebell Is Here (@SonRebell) June 17, 2023
On June 17th, SCGCon Baltimore hosted the first-ever sanctioned cEDH tournament, a $5K main event of nearly 120 competitors. While I've been out of the cEDH tournament circuit for nearly a year, opting to try out Legacy, I decided the event was too historic to miss out on and signed up for the cEDH weekend pass immediately. If I'm really being honest, the day before the tournament I was strongly considering dropping to play in the Legacy $10K main event instead, but some fun matches with friends and a slightly disappointing 3-2 in the Legacy $10K trial with my admittedly very sexy Mono-Black Scam list pushed me towards committing.
In the weeks before the event, I debated between bringing a new brew of Heliod Ballista combo and Rocco Food Chain Stax. In my opinion, Rocco is an objectively powerful deck and probably better in a vacuum, but I've really liked the version of Heliod I started brewing after an interesting conversation I had with well-known cEDH players Dan (better known as DTrain) and Alana at MTG Vegas. They argued that was the most powerful card in the format, and as such, was actually the strongest hate piece. The conversation got me thinking: while most stax decks play a diverse set of hate pieces to cover an array of strategies, what would happen if I instead based my entire suite around stopping a single powerful card that nearly every deck in the format was trying to abuse? What if my entire deck focused on stopping my opponents from casting multiple spells from the graveyard in a single turn? What if my deck was anti-Mardu Summer?
Obviously, this type of hate suite deals collateral damage. For example, while Mind Sculptors. To beat Breach, my deck plays seven or RoL-adjacent effects. stops Breach completely, it also stops Winota, Reanimator strategies, and also the powerful to-the-battlefield tutors used by decks like Najeela and Dawnwaker Thrasios. I quickly realized it was entirely possible to build a deck where nearly every hate piece targets Breach without sacrificing the ability to interact with other win cons. I layered this play theory with another one inspired primarily by conversations I've had over the last couple years with Charles, Callahan, and cobblepot of the
Under Rule of Law, flash creatures are a powerful way to break parity, and an even more powerful way to combo over your opponents when they've cast their single spell for the turn. The new Lord of the Rings set even provided a new flash-enabler that allows you to do the entire Heliod Ballista combo at instant speed.
Layering these two strategies led to the creation of Flash Cannon, AKA Shiny Registeel, and I piloted that deck to a 3-0-1 record in the Swiss rounds of SCGCon Baltimore (intentionally drawing the last round) and into the finals, battling several copies of Najeela, Tymna, Kraum, and even Thrasios.
But when I saw the final pod, I knew I was destined to lose. What deck made me so certain that I had no chance at the $1100 prize? That deck was a classic, straight out of 2018: Animar.
You see, in 2020 I top 4'd the DDM cEDH tournament, one of the first large paper cEDH tournaments, only to lose in the finals to .
The next year, I top 4'd the first of what would become the yearly Marchesa series of cEDH tournaments put on by Monarch, only to lose in the finals to Kinnan.
You may be wondering: what do Animar, Tatiyova, and Kinnan all have in common?
Simic bullshit. Simic bullshit is what they have in common.
Yeah, yeah, I know: Animar is technically Temur bullshit. But in reality, Animar's game plan leverages Simic bullshit mechanics.
What is the Simic bullshit, you ask?
In his recent Drive to Work podcast episode on Bant, Mark Rosewater described Simic as using green means to accomplish blue goals, and I think this a great description of the basic mechanics underlying the flavor of gameplay I call Simic bullshit.
Blue is powerful in cEDH because its primary aim aligns well with the aim of most cEDH decks: to resolve the spells it wants to resolve exactly when it needs to resolve them. Blue typically does so by drawing cards, scrying away duds, and casting cards for free or reduced costs. But when you add green, you attach those effects to green's main means of gameplay: creatures and lands.
Take Tatyova, for example. Why spend mana and cards to draw more cards, when you could simply draw a card whenever you play a land for the turn? Green has plenty of ways to play multiple lands per turn, which means that once Tatiyova hits the board, its controller is likely drawing multiple cards for turns, ergo it always has lands to play next turn. The engine feeds itself. A bullshit amount of value is created out of thin air.
Kinnan and Animar work in a similar way. Both take a common game action that is ubiquitous to nearly all Magic: the Gathering decks, making mana and casting creatures, and provide a pay-off that blue loves, card selection and cost reduction. Once the engines start moving, it's hard to fight all the value avalanche one-for-one.
In all three of these cases, the basic game action is abused in such a way that it occurs infinitely. Tatiyova often wins by repeatedly flickering a land, usually . Kinnan wins by repeatedly tapping a mana source, usually . Animar wins by repeatedly casting a creature for free, usually .
But Michael, why is this bullshit? Your Heliod deck wins by repeatedly activating a !
Simic bullshit is bullshit because the game actions that green centers around are ubiquitous game actions. An oft-maligned trend in green card design is its encroachment into other colors' color pies, but since the dawn of Magic, green has done something I've found even more annoying: it abuses the most basic mechanisms of the game.
Every deck must play lands, but green gets to put extra lands onto the battlefield each turn and gets more Landfall pay-offs. Every deck must use its mana to take game actions, but green makes more mana, and it gets a large number of big mana pay-offs. Plus, with a few exceptions, every deck must play creatures to kill their opponent or at least block their opponents' creatures, but green gets more efficient creatures and lots of pay-offs for casting and resolving creatures. Tatyova, Kinnan, and Animar abuse basic mechanisms of the game to create such a huge amount of value that the combo is almost an afterthought, while Heliod abuses an uncommon game action, gaining life, to create a small amount of value, and only becomes worthwhile when it can abuse a niche ability, the ability to remove a +1/+1 counter to deal damage to opponents, to combo off.
To be honest, this abuse of the basic mechanisms of Magic would be fine as long as decks could easily interact with these game actions, but Magic design has generally steered away from preventing players from playing a "fair" game of Magic. Hate effects generally avoid preventing players from playing lands, and one that could, , is banned. In addition, lots of tax effects and efficient counters specify that they only affect noncreature spells, and effects that nullify creature spells have become more rare; while is a great tool if you're willing to sacrifice your own creature spells, the most similar card printed in recent history, , is only temporary. The best way to interact with these decks, hard removal, loses some of its effectiveness when many of the creatures provide immediate effects and card advantage on ETB, and the big mana nature of the decks means they can easily recast their commanders. Animar even has protection from the two main removal colors!
In practice, what this means is that proactive decks, like Heliod, have limited tools to disrupt Simic bullshit engines outright, and once the engines are online, they tend to overwhelm any one-for-one exchanges that can be made. The finals match at SCGCon Baltimore was Heliod, Animar, 5C Sisay, and Tymna Kraum. My deck was built to deal with decks like Tymna Kraum, which love to abuse . 5C Sisay was a problem for my deck, as it cheats its permanents into play from the library without casting them, but at least a effect would be able to stop them from developing until they could remove it. Animar was the biggest problem, because while a effect may stop them from looping a Statue or , they still triggered Animar with their single creature per turn, and I have very few ways to block or remove the big boy. Once Animar was in play, the clock would start and it would be a race to the win.
In the end, it was the incremental Animar triggers that won Animar the finals of the SCGCon Baltimore cEDH $5K. I did use a to hold them back, but when they finally drew their removal for it, Animar already had enough counters on it and could go for the win immediately, eventually using to steal Sisay, tutor for Barrin, and then make infinite mana, clear the board, and draw his deck. That's what so bullshit about Simic bullshit: they generate value no matter what, so any interactions feel like more of a road bump than a true line of defense. They will eventually get there, like it or not.
Now I want to be clear: Simic bullshit decks aren't overpowered, they aren't bannable, and they aren't even overrepresented when you look at the top tables of large cEDH tournaments. They're just annoying to me, personally, because I play decks that try to combat broken mechanics that win the games, and they instead abuse basic mechanics to generate tons of value. But to be honest, their abuse of basic mechanics is actually what makes them so fun for so many players! Who doesn't want to be rewarded for playing the game? It's one of the reasons Landfall is such a loved mechanic, and why mechanics like cumulative upkeep are not.
If Simic bullshit seems like your kind of bullshit, there are lots of great lists you can check out: