Let’s clear the air. I want to write about a pet card 1,000 times (à la Day’s Undoing) about as little as you want to read about it. To quote one of the funnier comments on my umpteenth Day’s Undoing article, “This series is like watching a bubble burst in slow motion.” Funny, yeah, but fun for no one! Still, commenters last week raised some valid points about my consistent inclusion of Serum Powder in Eldrazi decks, and I think it would be interesting for all of us if I addressed their concerns more formally.
For starters, I think I was wrong to keep running Serum Powder during Eldrazi Winter. Literally nobody else ever picked the card up in the Eldrazi shell, and there must surely have been a reason why not. I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time; I just knew I wanted to play something “unique,” and subsequently brought an unoptimized deck to GP Detroit. After lots of testing with the TarmoDrazi deck, both with and without Serum Powder, I’ve again come to the conclusion that it has a place here, at least for now (even more testing may indicate the opposite). Moreover, I finally know why Powder didn’t work in Eye of Ugin Eldrazi, and why I think it works better now.
For reference, here’s my TarmoDrazi deck from last week:
TarmoDrazi, by Jordan Boisvert
4 Matter Reshaper
4 Thought-Knot Seer
4 Reality Smasher
1 World Breaker
4 Ancient Stirrings
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald
2 Lightning Bolt
4 Eldrazi Temple
4 Karplusan Forest
4 Wooded Foothills
2 Cavern of Souls
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Sea Gate Wreckage
2 Stomping Ground
4 Serum Powder
2 Feed the Clan
2 Surgical Extraction
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Kozilek’s Return
2 Pithing Needle
1 Crumble to Dust
1 Ratchet Bomb
1 Reclamation Sage
1 Magus of the Moon
1 Kozilek, the Great Distortion
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Serum Powder as a Digging Tool
The obvious reason to run Serum Powder is to gain access to a consistency tool in colors or decks that can’t afford to run other consistency tools. Vintage Dredge uses the card, for example, to locate Bazaar of Baghdad. Unlike Dredge, TarmoDrazi can and does run other consistency tools—Ancient Stirrings and Traverse the Ulvenwald both dig for crucial permanents. Stirrings and Traverse are traditional cantrips in that they cost just one mana and hold their value during every stage of a game.
Serum Powder operates within a much narrower window than these two cantrips, but offers a payoff in the vein of Chancellor of the Forge or Leyline of Sanctity. Opening Chancellor can make Goblin Piledriver lethal a critical turn earlier, and mulliganning into Leyline is sometimes gamebreaking enough that certain decks board them without packing any white mana sources. Powder shares with these cards a dependence on opening hand variance, but offers similarly sizable rewards when the stars align. Unlike Stirrings and Traverse, Powder won’t dig us out of holes or solidify a board advantage once players have resolved mulligans.
To properly analyze Powder’s role as a digging tool, we need to ask ourselves why decks play digging tools in the first place. Deckbuilders include cantrips in their 75 for two reasons:
1. Digging tools help find specific cards as needed. Collected Company in Standard’s Bant Company, Serum Visions in Modern’s
UR Twin Temur Delver, and Ponder in Legacy’s Canadian Threshold all help pilots treat their decks like swiss army knives. In these scenarios, cantrips are used to find answers to resolved threats, counterspells for an opponent’s impending combo, a fourth land to cast Huntmaster of the Fells, and so on, and are lauded for their versatility.
2. Digging tools help increase the density of a certain card or type of cards. Combo decks use cantrips for this second reason; Magic has this stupid rule that only allows players to pack four copies of each card. That’s just four copies of Scapeshift; four copies of Goryo’s Vengeance; four copies of
Splinter Twin Tarmogoyf. Without consistency tools like Serum Visions, combo decks like Ad Nauseam would have a tough time existing in Modern, as they wouldn’t find their key cards regularly enough to win a passable percentage of matches.
This second reason also explains the restrictions of Ponder and Brainstorm in Vintage, Magic’s oldest format. Wizards doesn’t want players casting broken restricted cards like Ancestral Recall and Time Walk in virtually every game, but they can’t ask players to play less than one of those cards. As a solution, they restricted the cantrips best at finding blue Power.
Let’s apply these two dimensions to Serum Powder.
1. Finding Specific Cards as Needed
Powder struggles at finding specific answers, since it exclusively provides consistency at the beginning of a game. The card won’t help us adjust to the predicament we find ourselves in; it can only put us on track to play a certain kind of game with some degree of improved competence. In TarmoDrazi, like in Colorless Eldrazi Stompy, we want to maximize our aggressive starts.
Why Powder failed in Colorless: If we want to maximize our aggressive starts, we need to aggressively mulligan into—and Powder into—hands that contain a combination of efficient threats and Sol lands. I originally tried Serum Powder in Eldrazi for reason two, hoping to virtually increase the amount of Sol lands in the deck. But as widespread tournament results indicated, eight Sol lands were more than enough to render the Eldrazi deck tremendously consistent. The verdict: Colorless Eldrazi Stompy didn’t need Serum Powder to find its Sol lands on time.
So what about its efficient threats? Again, the Stompy deck had a myriad of options available: Eldrazi Mimic, Endless One, and even Endbringer all spring to mind. UW Eldrazi, which ended up being the best version, played even more efficient threats in Eldrazi Displacer, Eldrazi Skyspawner, and Drowner of Hope, and had the most aggressive starts of any deck in Modern as a result. The verdict: Colorless Eldrazi Stompy also didn’t need Powder to find its threats. It could just play more threats instead of Powders and have a better chance of opening competent aggressive hands.
Why I think Powder is better here: Unlike Colorless Eldrazi Stompy, TarmoDrazi can’t simply play more efficient threats instead of Serum Powder. Thanks to the Eye of Ugin ban (seriously, what the hell, Wizards!), we now lack the available pool of efficient threats that Colorless Eldrazi Stompy had access to. Tarmogoyf can only get so far on his own. Eldrazi Mimic and Endless One rightfully held uncontested seats at the Eldrazi Core table, but without Eyes to back up our Temples, they do next to nothing.
Let’s say we open one Temple. In this case, Eldrazi Mimic will swing for three on turn two if we even have a Matter Reshaper handy, or for four on turn three if we have Thought-Knot. And that’s if opponents don’t Lightning Bolt our Mimic. In my opinion, the marginal upside of sometimes providing a little bit of extra damage is not worth handing 40% of the metagame a golden opportunity to favorably interact with us. Back in the day, Mimic still offered opponents that opportunity, but he came with the significant upside of usually providing lots of extra damage.
As for Endless One, this creature now comes down as a 3/3 on turn two, or a 4/4 on turn three. For context, that’s Watchwolf and Loxodon Smiter, neither of which are particularly fabled for their efficiency. Endless One does have the benefit of being able to come down whenever for all the mana we can muster, but I don’t think this deck prizes that sort of flexibility. It mostly wants to maximize aggressive starts, and Endless One doesn’t do that for us anymore.
2. Increasing the Density of Certain Cards/Types of Cards
As mentioned above, my initial reasoning for playing Powder in Eldrazi was to increase my Sol land density.
Why Powder failed in Colorless: I also mentioned above that Colorless didn’t need to increase its Sol land density to be hugely consistent.
Why I think Powder is better here: Conversely, TarmoDrazi really wants more Sol lands. Four is not enough. Serum Powder is no tutor, though. It won’t search for Eldrazi Temple directly, and it offers no guarantee of finding one. But it does greatly improve our chances of opening one, and that’s good enough for me. The games we start off with Eldrazi Temple seriously resemble the games Eldrazi decks played when Eye of Ugin was legal, and anyone who played during that time (hopefully, not many of you) can attest to the archetype’s power.
There’s also a palpable difference between finding Temple with Serum Powder and finding Temple with something like Expedition Map or Sylvan Scrying. Tutors promise to find the land, but they eat up our early mana, depriving us of the ability to execute an optimal midrange plan: disrupt opponents, commit to the board. Map costs one mana to play and two mana to activate.
For the same price, we could Tarfire a creature and follow up with Tarmogoyf. If our mulligans (and hopefully, Serum Powders) aid us in opening the Sol land naturally, we can chase that Tarmogoyf with a turn-three Thought-Knot Seer and practically seal the game on the spot. Looking back at the Map player, that third turn Thought-Knot Seer would mark his first foray into actually impacting the board. In Modern, waiting so long to interact even minimally will usually cost players the game, unless they’re doing something enormous like casting Karn Liberated or Wurmcoil Engine. We aren’t.
Green cantrips walk the line between the “free” Serum Powder dig and the expensive Map dig when it comes to finding Sol lands. At just one mana, I’m happy to include them in the deck, especially since they also find creatures.
Serum Powder as a Mana Source
Unlike Chancellor of the Forge in the decks that run him, or Leyline of Sanctity in decks without white, Serum Powders drawn naturally during a game aren’t totally dead cards. Granted, nobody would play Powder exclusively for its tap ability, since superior alternatives like Mind Stone and Talisman of Impulse exist. But it’s important when analyzing the card not to forget that Powder does tap for one mana if we’re willing to cast it.
In a deck like Eldrazi, having a mana rock—if an undeniably lackluster one—is far from the end of the world. In fact, the Eye of Ugin-featuring GR Eldrazi deck played Mind Stone or Talisman of Impulse (list depending) in the main, since ramping into World Breaker was so important to that deck’s gameplan.
In this version of the deck, Powder’s hidden mode of “bad Talisman” has at least some relevance. We too run World Breaker, as well as one sideboard copy of a larger curve-topper, Kozilek, the Great Distortion. Powder also plays nice with Sea Gate Wreckage, helping us rush out a mana source while sort of bypassing the one-land-per-turn rule to achieve hellbent faster. And since Wreckage essentially requires four mana per turn to shine as a draw engine, Powder helps us actually cast the Eldrazi we draw from it.
Similarly, Powder works well with our green cantrips. One mana makes a huge difference in this deck, as evidenced by the amount of speed we gain by pulling a single Eldrazi Temple. Three mana casts Matter Reshaper, four mana casts Thought-Knot Seer, and five mana casts Reality Smasher. With an additional mana source on the board, we can first cantrip to dig for those threats, and then cast them. I realize this notion sounds intuitive—of course having one more mana available lets us do more things. But the extra help from an on-board Serum Powder in maintaining deck velocity, deploying threats, and disrupting opponents within a single turn cycle has come up enough times for me that I feel I need to mention it explicitly.
Possible Replacements for Serum Powder
Since we lack efficient threats without Eye of Ugin, cutting Serum Powder means adding something else. Given the deck’s midrangey nature, I think it wants to add interaction. Besides, what else is there? We’ve already established that we can’t add creatures, and we don’t want to add so many lands that we flood every game.
I tested extensively this week without Serum Powder, eventually replacing my playset of the artifact with two copies of Ratchet Bomb, a third Lightning Bolt, and a second Ghost Quarter. The deck was much slower. I couldn’t afford to ship all my decent hands without explosive starts, and ended up playing like a less aggressive version of Jund in many games. Serum Powder‘s main purpose in this deck is to help us assemble hands that enable aggressive starts at a rate better than the normal trade-your-hand-for-one-less-card offered by traditional mulligans.
One other possible inclusion over Serum Powder that I’ve considered but not yet tested is Oath of Nissa. We’ve seen that in Game 1, our digging effects (Stirrings, Traverse, and Serum Powder) are usually spent finding us threats or Temples. Oath also finds threats and Temples, and it boasts the flexibility of the other cantrips by remaining useful as the game drags on.
Wide-Open Modern, Wide-Open ‘Drazi
Last week, a commenter mentioned the possibility of a black splash instead of red in TarmoDrazi. That sounds viable to me. As I see it, there are plenty of ways to build TarmoDrazi, just as there are plenty of decks to play in Modern. By that same token, it’s fully possible that despite my 2000+ words here, Serum Powder really isn’t optimal in this deck. I’ll hopefully catch on to that fact before someone else does if it’s true, but I don’t mind eating my words if it means the deck gets better.
I love Modern because players can pretty much sleeve up anything they want, and I’m sure many players share this sentiment. Whether you’re a Powder believer or not, let’s toast to the format’s unbelievable range and brewing space. It’s time to make Eldrazi great again!