Lessons From the Fringe: Tactical Play with Yarok, the Desecrated, Part 2
In a previous episode, we looked at some general concepts for making decisions to generate value and advantage from Yarok, the Desecrated in a Lands Matter shell. This time around we’ll examine more of what the list has to offer with a particular focus on lines of play that may not be readily apparent, especially for those entrenched in the greater cEDH metagame.
Throw Your Lands in the Air!!
We’ve touched briefly before on how land bounce is an underpinning tenet of how this list functions. Bouncing land facilitates two dimensions of what we’re trying to do. The first has to do with disruption. Most decks in the cEDH meta aren’t running much in the way of land-into-play effects like Sakura-Tribe Scout or Llanowar Scout. We may see Exploration or maybe even Burgeoning on occasion, but for the most part we can expect most lists to be ill prepared to break parity against Overburden and Mana Breach effects.
Given the choice of the two, we normally prioritize Mana Breach because it uniformly hits all lists regardless of strategy. If the texture of the board leans creature-oriented, Overburden grows enormously in power, especially since it scales with Yarok. Returning two lands to hand for every creature is positively back-breaking for lists that aren’t prepared to work around it.
In order to accentuate the negative impact that bouncing lands imposes upon our opponents, we’re also running Root Maze and Orb of Dreams. On their own, these pieces dramatically slow the progress of all lists regardless of archetype (fetchlands entering tapped are a thing of beauty). When composed with Overburden and Mana Breach, however, even the simplest lines of play become utterly excruciating to execute.
Our main means of breaking parity along this axis falls to Amulet of Vigor and Lotus Cobra.
If you’ve ever seen Amulet of Vigor before, the context was most likely some variant of Amulet Titan (aka Amulet Bloom). We operate on several of the same premises as that list does. We even run Simic Growth Chamber to enable some similar oddball lines that go more and more mana positive the more entrenched our position is. The main idea is that Amulet allows us not only to mitigate the downside of lands entering tapped, but it actually becomes acceleration with an active Yarok online. Since Amulet of Vigor‘s ability is triggered, it yields two untaps to any permanent that would otherwise enter tapped. In fact, this interaction leads us to prioritize taplands over ABU duals while Amulet is in play in order to gain the double untap benefit. Once we combine Amulet with a Root Maze effect, all lands become taplands (Gaea’s Cradle!) and enjoy the asymmetric doubling effect.
Lotus Cobra achieves the same goal, albeit in a slightly different way. In this case, we don’t care about whether lands enter tapped or not, since they generate mana upon entering the battlefield. Like Amulet of Vigor, when we don’t have Yarok online, our experience is effectively that of not having a Root Maze in play at all. And again, when Yarok does come online, the mitigation transforms into acceleration (each land etb yielding two mana in any combination of colors).
Yes, there are also times when we do have Root Maze, Amulet of Vigor, and Lotus Cobra all in play simultaneously. Those situations are truly a sight to behold.
We said above that all this land bouncing infrastructure supports two strategic dimensions of game play. What we just covered was disruption. The other half has to do with value generation. Since we’re building a shell on top of the platform of land bounce, our plan accommodates not only the breaking of parity, but also leveraging of this pattern to generate advantage. As mentioned, we employ Lotus Cobra and Amulet of Vigor to reconcile our game plan with Root Maze effects. To the same end, we use things like Sakura-Tribe Scout, Coiling Oracle, and Arboreal Grazer to overcome the downsides of Overburden effects.
When this comes together we create a climate where lands leave and enter play frequently. Given that Yarok is an amplifier for etbs, it isn’t surprising that landfall provides the spine for our midrange game plan. We don’t need Yarok online for pieces like Retreat to Coralhelm or Dread Presence to generate incredible value. The prospect of a single fetchland drawing two cards, producing three mana, untapping Bloom Tender twice, bolting two creatures, etc confers a huge amount of flexibility and interaction. The fact that our commander passively doubles all that makes our game incredibly resilient and hard to deal with.
An interesting aspect of choosing this trajectory is that the criteria for justifying our use of pieces like Burgeoning are the same that motivate most decklists not to run them. To unpack that a bit, let’s consider why Sakura-Tribe Scout, Arboreal Grazer, and Burgeoning don’t see much play. Generally the answer comes down to the fact that all of these feel really bad if you don’t have extra lands in hand. Most cEDH lists run a comparatively low land count and thus can’t expect to extract enough value out of these sorts of cards to warrant their inclusion. This is great for us because it means the disparity between our board state and theirs will be accentuated by the fact that we’ll be the only player breaking parity.
For example, suppose we’ve got Mana Breach and Burgeoning in play. We can reasonably expect all players to be making a land drop every turn because every spell cast results in a land bounced. This means we can expect to make four land drops per turn cycle compared to our opponents’ one (since each opponent will assuredly be playing a land on their turns). If all four players had a Burgeoning in play, the value of each one would be comparatively low and players would remain at parity. Since we are almost guaranteed to be the only player running Burgeoning we can expect it not only to function at high value, but to create a wide gap between our board functionality and that of our opponents.
An Example Board State
As usual, we’re going to presume an initial starting point and break down the rationale and consequences for various lines of play. For the sake of simplicity, we’re ignoring the board presence of the other three players for now, but we’ll examine the implications of how we can expect to be interacted with in general broad strokes.
So without further ado, here’s our board:
And our current hand:
There’s lots to talk about here before we can entertain ideas for which direction to go. For starters, we’ve got Yarok in play. We can attribute his resolving in our previous turn largely to the combination of Collector Ouphe and Overburden applying significant pressure to opponent manabases. Don’t forget that Yarok himself entering the battlefield causes Overburden to double trigger (hence Gaea’s Cradle and Breeding Pool both being in hand). We’ve also got Amulet of Vigor online which can account for our choice to seek out shocklands rather than ABU duals. Deathrite Shaman has been doing his usual business serving as a rattlesnake to disrupt opponent recursion lines while Elvish Reclaimer has been putting in all the work to get lands on board that advance our strategy (namely Gaea’s Cradle, but the shocks too).
Our hand has an absolute ton of action (mainly because we’ve only recently let go of our turn one Mystic Remora). Veil of Summer is our only stack interaction, but given the board state, it’s a great fit. The oppressive climate for our manabases isn’t going to be undone quickly, so we aren’t in jeopardy of any of the opponents executing a quick combo under the radar, therefore our focus can reasonably sit around protecting our own plan rather than holding up a counterspell to disrupt someone else from going off. Hence, Veil of Summer is a good fit.
Arboreal Grazer is an incredible piece of action given the combination of Overburden, Amulet of Vigor, and Yarok. We’ll dive into some specifics around how we can apply him in a moment, but there’s a reason he’s earned the affectionate nickname “Bark Ritual” over on the Yarok discord.
Dance of Many is another massively explosive piece when Yarok is online. This is mostly because it lets you execute double amplification. Applications abound, so we’ll break that into it’s own section too.
Finally, we’ve got two tutors, Demonic Tutor and Finale of Devastation. Just having one of these would put us in a great spot. Having both should make the going extremely difficult for our opponents.
Arboreal Grazer gives a great demonstration of how this shell can go from ‘merely breaking parity’ at its floor to accelerating beyond all reason at its ceiling. Without Yarok in play, Grazer complements Overburden, aligning one-for-one land out and land in. This allows us to avoid losing ground (pun most assuredly intended) when Grazer enters the battlefield. Amulet of Vigor interacts with Grazer’s etb tapped clause converting what would have otherwise been a land lost to Overburden into an untapped land net gained. If our land was a Forest, we pay and get . This is our floor. No Yarok and we’re mitigating and mildly overcoming the taxing atmosphere imposed by our board state while our opponents fall behind by degrees.
Now, enter Yarok and we see the pieces scale. First of all, Overburden now triggers twice which makes life much worse for our opponents. For us it actually makes life better because Arboreal Grazer also triggers twice to return two lands. Combined with Amulet of Vigor now double triggering, we have two lands leave, two lands enter, and each land untaps twice. If we’re talking about a Forest again, we’re paying to get . In this case, however, we’re looking at Gaea’s Cradle with five creatures. Even in the naive case of racing Arboreal Grazer straight out, we’re looking at twenty (20) green mana for a cost of .
An important thing to note here is that neither Arboreal Grazer nor Overburden require a target for their triggered abilities. This means Grazer’s ability can interact with lands that weren’t in your hand when he entered play. Vice versa for the case of Overburden. This coupled with the fact that both sets of triggers all go onto the stack simultaneously means that we can be very creative in how we organize the triggers. In the case of Gaea’s Cradle we’ll almost always interleave the Grazer triggers with the Overburden triggers to have Cradle be the only land moving back and forth. If we have no lands in play, it’s often sensible to put the Overburden triggers on the top so we can let the two lands stick after the triggers resolve. If we need a combination of colors, we can move a combination of lands back and forth, or just apply the triggers to dual lands and activate for different colors, etc.
Dance of Many is one of those cards that you’ve likely never seen before and even if you have, you’ll have to give it a fresh read every time you see it. Basically it’s an Enchantment that creates a token copy of any creature in play. If either the token or Dance of Many leaves the battlefield, the other goes away too. And there’s an upkeep of . Vaguely speaking, it’s a bad Phantasmal Image.
So why does it get a slot? When Yarok is online, it’s very, very good. It’s so good when we have Yarok that we can overlook how bad it is without him.
The reason it’s so good is due to Double Amplification. We look at Lotus Cobra, Arboreal Grazer, et all and can readily observe how Yarok amplifies their abilities. Dance of Many is one of the rare cards that itself gets amplified by Yarok (to create two tokens) and then each of the tokens is again amplified individually.
An easy way to illustrate this is with Risen Reef. Given a Reef in play, we can cast Dance of Many and have both of its triggers target Reef. When we resolve the first trigger, we get a copy of Risen Reef which sees itself enter the battlefield. The original also sees the copy enter the battlefield. Yarok doubles the etb triggers on both the original and the copy to produce a total of four Risen Reef triggers. Once those resolve, the second Dance of Many trigger resolves, producing another copy and all three instances see the new copy and get doubled by Yarok to produce six more triggers. When all is said and done, we have paid for ten Risen Reef triggers. Lands put into play from those triggers will enter tapped, so they’ll get double untapped due to Amulet of Vigor. You get the idea.
Maybe instead we have a Dread Presence in play and choose to copy it twice. Now every swamp that enters the battlefield will produce six Dread Presence triggers which can be mixed and matched between draws and drains. Maybe we just hit someone to the dome for twelve, or kill six creatures, or draw six, or kill Tymna and draw five. Don’t forget that we have Elvish Reclaimer so Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is no sweat and from there fetchlands become deadly.
The Arboreal Grazer “Bark Ritual” line above wasn’t bad. We could throw Dance of Many at it to convert into fifty-two (52) more green mana since the tokens increase Cradle’s output to six and seven respectively.
If we have Spellseeker in play, our buys us Flash, Summoner’s Pact, and two counterspells to protect them.
Mixing and matching works too. Suppose we did look up Dread Presence. We could have one trigger copy that and then the second trigger make a copy of Arboreal Grazer to generate mana and draws/drains.
An online Dream Stalker or Eternal Witness allows you to recur your Dance of Many, opening up a host of lines when mixing with other creatures to accomplish essentially anything you want. A little creativity goes a long way.
Back to the Game
Now that we’ve looked a bit at the kinds of things we can do with some of the less familiar cards we have in hand, we can get down to the business of breaking down where we actually want to go from this position. Thinking back to front, picking a desired end point will drive the steps we want to take in between. We only run a single ‘devoted’ win con in the deck (Laboratory Maniac + Tainted Pact), though several of our key utility pieces also step in if the situation fits. Here are some thoughts:
Tainted Pact + Laboratory Maniac is the quick “I win right now” package that cuts through essentially all hate in the format short of Narset, Parter of Veils. It’s been dominating the metagame for very good reason and the numbers speak for themselves. In our case, we can assemble it through Flash Hulk (finding Laboratory Maniac + Spellseeker) or incidentally through any of our infinite draw/mana scenarios that materialize from time to time.
If we want to use Flash Hulk to put this together, our most efficient way to get there is probably Spellseeker, who then grabs Flash and Summoner’s Pact. Since we have Yarok in play, we wouldn’t need to put Laboratory Maniac in the Hulk pile. Instead we could shoot for something like Coiling Oracle + Cloud of Faeries + Dream Stalker. The choice of Dream Stalker over Shrieking Drake in this case is so we can bounce Overburden and make our math easier to reconcile. The steady state we’d hit would then have Dream Stalker and Cloud of Faeries loop for infinite mana and then Stalker would switch to looping Coiling Oracle to ‘draw’ the deck, put all land into play, cast Labman, and win.
To be clear, in the above we don’t have to bounce Overburden. With Arboreal Grazer, we can just create a sawtooth wave with our lands, and ride Amulet of Vigor to infinite mana. Even if we didn’t have Amulet in play, we could swap out Cloud of Faeries for Lotus Cobra in our Hulk pile to achieve the same result. Many of our lines have redundant analogues in the deck so we can pick up and keep going if something goes wrong along the way. For example, if someone saw Arboreal Grazer on the stack and responded “Arboreal Grazer? Oh no!! Time to Nature’s Claim that Amulet!”) we can shrug it off and go the Lotus Cobra route instead.
Rather than searching out a LabMan win, we can instead leverage the fact that Finale of Devastation is a wincon all by itself given sufficient mana. We’ve already got it in hand, so all that remains is getting to infinite mana. We talked about how excessively mana positive the Bark Ritual line can be, so that’s a good place to start. We can easily bolster it by using our Demonic Tutor to look up Shrieking Drake or Cloudstone Curio. In the case of Drake, we let Arboreal Grazer oscillate between Gaea’s Cradle and Breeding Pool to ensure access to both and .
Cloudstone is even simpler, since we can focus entirely on green mana, switching between Grazer and Deathrite Shaman until we feel comfortable enough to kill the table. A quick side note on Cloudstone Curio is that it works on Creatures, Lands, Enchantments, and Planeswalkers. Creature loops are readily apparent most of the time to a lot of people, but using Cloudstone to recur important lands like Mystic Sanctuary or to remove Root Maze or Overburden in a pinch aren’t immediately obvious to a lot of pilots. Leveraging Curio to reveal hidden recursions or to sidestep your own stax pieces is another step along the path away from functional fixedness. Keep those kinds of things in mind when devising your lines.
Another non-Labman route to victory is to machine gun the table with Dread Presence when we assemble any kind of land loop (via Cloudstone Curio, Overburden, Twister loops + Crop Rotation, etc). We’ve got Elvish Reclaimer on board, so this can be a viable choice, but given that we already have Finale of Devastation in hand along with most of what we need to go infinite we’ll keep Dread Presence in our back pocket for now.
The Question of Sequencing
Supposing we decide to pursue infinite Bark Ritual into a massive Finale of Devastation win, the next choice is order of operations. The individual clicks along the way include
- Play Gaea’s Cradle
- Cast Arboreal Grazer
- Cast Demonic Tutor
- Cast Finale of Devastation
No matter what, we want to open with Gaea’s Cradle which will get two untaps and start us off with eight green mana.
Our opponents are experiencing mana pressure, but that doesn’t mean we can blithely stride forward without worrying about interaction. The line we’re on hinges upon Yarok remaining in play. Even though we’re probably tempted to open with Veil of Summer, that will undeniably prompt anyone holding up removal to use it right away. We don’t have any other instant interaction in hand, so that would be an unfortunate missed opportunity. Opening with Arboreal Grazer overcomes this slightly by letting us hold up Veil of Summer to interact with responses that may be oncoming. It stands to reason that we’re unlikely to see a lot of countermagic (otherwise, Yarok probably wouldn’t have resolved last turn), but we still want to be prepared.
If we open with Demonic Tutor, we get access to even more pivoting flexibility. Supposing someone responds to counter the tutor, we can respond with Veil of Summer. Should Veil get countered as well, we can pursue Arboreal Grazer with a much greater chance of getting it to resolve (presuming it does, split your mana half with Cradle and half with Breeding Pool so you can line up ). Then we can Finale of Devastation for Eternal Witness to recover Veil of Summer and Finale. If Veil gets countered again after that, cast Finale again and grab Yarok’s Fenlurker. A double triggering Fenlurker should clear the way for you to cast Dance of Many to copy Grazer (for another Bark Ritual) and copy Eternal Witness to recover Finale of Devastation and Demonic Tutor (just in case). At this point, a modest Finale with X=20 should be enough to finish the game.
If the casting of Demonic Tutor instead prompted someone to respond with removal targeted at Yarok, we’d still respond with Veil of Summer to draw out any counterspells that may be laying in wait. We’re ok with Veil getting countered here as long as we keep moving toward a game state where opponents can’t interact with us. If Veil does get countered and we lose Yarok, the type of removal our opponent used will dictate what we get from Demonic Tutor. If Yarok dies, we’ll let him go to the graveyard and search up Necromancy to reanimate and continue. If Yarok gets bounced to hand or exiled, we’ve got enough mana online to recast him and then go for Bark Ritual. Like above, we want the initial Bark Ritual to generate in addition to Cradle mana so we can follow up a Finale for Eternal Witness with a Dance of Many to take the game.
Today’s example was a fairly ideal board state to start in. When we next visit Yarok, we’ll start in a less enviable position and see what we can do to gain control. If you want some practice, take today’s example and devise lines from the initial starting point, but without key pieces like Yarok or Amulet of Vigor on board or without Finale of Devastation or Arboreal Grazer in hand.
Until then, hit me up in the comments or on reddit (/u/cobblepott) with questions, comments, suggestions!