Lessons From the Fringe: Tactical Play with Yarok, the Desecrated, Part 1
Deck power evaluation can be a tricky thing.
On some level it makes sense that power and viability would be objective qualities, free of baggage or bias, but unfortunately things don’t typically work out in such simple terms. For one, context plays an enormous role in answering questions of competitive viability. We can break down board textures, matchups, and metagames to gain insight into the forces involved in pushing various lists or individual cards to the forefront of our community’s collective good graces, but for the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus along the lines of another dimension to evaluation that gets less airtime and attention: Functional Fixedness and how it relates to Convergent / Divergent Thinking.
The cEDH community is, for generally good reasons, largely indentured into the mindset of convergent thinking. That is, focus starts and ends squarely around finding the singularly most efficient, resilient, and effective route to victory and making it accessible and repeatable. Wincons are refined, reduced, or eliminated entirely in pursuit of producing lists that can deterministically execute on their goals while remaining as interactive and/or disruptive as possible.
The obvious outworking of this process is a produced body of decklists that are highly streamlined, efficient, and effective.
The less obvious outworking of this process is an intellectual predisposition toward functional fixedness.
Now, before things go overboard here, this isn’t any kind of indictment of the cEDH community. The point is that the relentlessness with which we chase after efficiency and reliability can have the side effect of stifling our ability to apply divergent thinking to how we evaluate cards in the small and lists in the large. For example, consider Crop Rotation. What does it “do”? While a lot of the answers to that will be context dependent, most people will generally converge upon something along the lines of finding Gaea’s Cradle or Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. While those are surely good uses, your repertoire is going to be limited if that is the extent to what you see when you look at this card. We’ll come back to this later.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Yarok, the Desecrated. The level of pure value he offers is frankly astounding. Doubling triggers for Creatures and Artifacts has been done before with Panharmonicon, but this is an entirely different field of play. Adding triggers associated with Lands and Enchantments to the mix and applying them to a card that can live in your command zone creates an incredibly powerful and flexible backbone for a deck which can be exploited to great effect.
The list I’ve been working on (Throw your lands in the air!!) attacks opponent land resources in some unconventional ways that play to Yarok’s strengths, but don’t require him to be on the battlefield to function effectively. An interesting quality to this particular shell is that many of the pieces that act as denial for opponents, like Root Maze or Overburden wind up becoming acceleration for you. Then when Yarok comes online, the disparity gap actually widens. Amulet of Vigor becomes a ramp tool instead of just a mitigation tool, Arboreal Grazer is happy to return both lands bounced by Overburden, and so on. There’s a lot of unexplored territory to inhabit in this space and if initial performance is any indication, Yarok has quite a bit of untapped potential.
Something unexpected, however, that’s come up multiple times with the list is people asking “what to do”. And not just the typical questions about wincons and combo lines, but more fundamental inquiries around how to get the deck off the ground in the first place. Additional questions and critiques along the way have convinced me that examining with a functionally fixed mindset obscures much of the what the deck has to offer. If any list benefits from a healthy dose of divergent thinking, it’s this one.
With that in mind, let’s try an exercise to look at some of what I’m talking about.
A Sample Game State
For the purposes of this exercise, lets assume an initial board state where we’ve got the following:
And here’s our hand:
We’re in our first main and haven’t yet played a land for turn. Let’s assume three opponents, but for simplicity we’ll leave the details of their board states out for now, suffice to say that they are interactive, but not representing a next turn wincon. The idea is to map out various lines we have available and what their consequences will be in the short and long term.
A quick glance at our hand and board reveals a lot of possibilities. Lotus Cobra and Sakura-Tribe Scout are an incredible team for generating a board state out of nowhere and creating powerful interactions with engines like Tatyova, Benthic Druid. It’s almost always correct to treat Scout like any other instant effect and leave him open to interact with opponents, add more math to their calculations (since they don’t know if you have more mana in hand), or just wait till opponent eot to add more land into play.
Crop Rotation is exceptionally powerful with a Lotus Cobra on the board. Don’t second guess searching up a fetchland just for the extra land etb, particularly once Yarok has come online. Since we run Dread Presence, Crop Rotation can also do work finding Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth or a host of various other things depending on the table texture.
Spellseeker is the root for a number of different lines like Summoner’s Pact and Flash or Tainted Pact and Brainstorm. The presence of Yarok on the board lets Spellseeker grab both halves in a single go, but that doesn’t mean she’s relegated to waiting for some fine day. If we need a key removal piece or extra protection to supplement our Swan Song those are valid plays.
Dream Stalker is a key combo piece once we’ve got Yarok online, but for now looks like excellent fodder for Survival of the Fittest to go looking for next steps in implementing our game plan.
Speaking of, what is our game plan? We said that none of the opponents are representing a next turn win. Should we play aggressively and try to set up a win on the spot? Do we have enough to protect that? Should we look for disruption? Should we look for sandbags and prep for a long grind? There are many valid directions you could take, particularly based on information you have about your opponents. Let’s take a look at some possibilities.
Option 1: Straightforward, Naive, and Yet Strangely Defensible
If you’re a new Yarok player, it’s likely one of the first things to come to mind would be Jamming Yarok straightaway. We want him on the board right?
One way to make this happen would be to play Command Tower use the mana triggered from Lotus Cobra along with four lands to cast Yarok, the Desecrated. Where does that leave us?
We’re representing one open mana to cast our Swan Song (which we can use to protect Yarok as well), but that’s only a single piece of cover. For most tables, that isn’t going to be enough to succeed in a bid for winning the game. A Sakura-Tribe Scout activation for the Polluted Delta represents five mana: two from the initial Lotus Cobra double trigger, two more when we crack it for another land, and then another when we tap the crack target. We could even use one of that mana to cast Crop Rotation for another fetch to net another four mana over the top of that. That’s a lot of mana, but we need cards in hand to make it worthwhile.
From here, there’s a number of branches we could reasonably take:
- Slam Spellseeker right now. We have access to nine mana and have a counterspell. If we lose on the stack, we can Crop Rotation one of our non-swamps into a land that has Swamp in its type and then convert our Polluted Delta into a Witch’s Cottage to have another go next turn. We could also use Survival of the Fittest to convert Dream Stalker into Eternal Witness to retrieve both the Spellseeker and the Swan Song.
- We could Survival of the Fittest the Dream Stalker into a utility piece to slow our opponents down. Gilded Drake can wreck the house in these situations if the triggers target creatures owned by separate players (especially when you shuffle their commanders all around). Maybe a Collector Ouphe will buy some time. Perhaps firing off a Yarok’s Fenlurker to shave two cards from each opponent will clear the air for a less interactive go at Spellseeker next turn. We’ll talk in a bit about some lines involving Tatyova, Benthic Druid or Dread Presence in a minute.
- We could just pass turn. This lets us store our considerable resources for a more explosive next turn, hides information from our opponents, and lets us play more reactively. Maybe someone will cast a wheel so you can look up your Notion Thief in response.
Option 2: Head First
Instead of opening with Yarok, we could jump headlong into Spellseeker. There are many implications here compared to the previous option. A single triggering board means Sakura-Tribe Scout only generates a top end of five mana (presuming a Crop Rotation extension). That’s still a lot of mana, but the difference is significant. A Yarok-less board also means we only look up a single card from Spellseeker, but that could actually be a boon since opponents will feel less threatened by a choice of one vs choice of two. Rather than reaching for a combo, you could very well just be looking for value.
In our above board state, we have three ‘visible’ mana with at least three more off of Sakura-Tribe Scout. We still have Swan Song in hand and let’s say that Spellseeker resolved uncontested. Now what?
- We could look up Flash. Having Survival of the Fittest in play means we don’t need Summoner’s Pact to tutor up Protean Hulk. But what then? Our main Yarok-less line gets Spellseeker + Laboratory Maniac, but we’ve already got Spellseeker in play, so we still need to find Tainted Pact and a way to draw a card.
- We could look up Flash and go the more controversial route of assembling a ‘value’ pile instead of winning outright. Maybe something like Gilded Drake + Yarok’s Fenlurker + Quirion Ranger + Shrieking Drake. Or maybe Dread Presence + Quirion Ranger + Elvish Reclaimer. These may look like wasted Flash Hulks, but the presence of Witch’s Cottage and Mystic Sanctuary make recovery and reiteration more feasible than you might think.
- We could tutor up Tainted Pact with the implication of Survival of the Fittest providing the means to get Laboratory Maniac. This is mana heavy, telegraphed, easy to interact with, and we still don’t have a draw trigger anywhere. Needs work.
- We could pull up Assassin’s Trophy or something similar if there’s a Cursed Totem or some other irritating road block we need to deal with. We could also just tutor that and pass turn, signalling we’ve gone into defensive posture.
- Then of course we could look up Demonic Tutor. This is a whole new tree unto itself. The deferred choices that can be rationalized abound. Root Maze, Overburden, or Mana Breach all represent solid plays (especially since we’ve already got Lotus Cobra online). Necromancy is a strong play in that it represents a win if we can stick Yarok on the board (then use Survival of the Fittest to transfer Dream Stalker and Cloud of Faeries into the yard and go infinite). Dance of Many is another bonkers choice once we manage to get Yarok onto the board.
Option 3: Slow and Steady
A more defensive choice involves fortifying our board with the insane card advantage and (not inconsequential) life gain of Tatyova, Benthic Druid. This engine is a sight to behold when Yarok comes to town, but even with single triggers, the value and flexibility of your lines opens dramatically.
You’ll notice that even though we have no ‘visible’ on board mana, our Sakura-Tribe Scout + Crop Rotation package not only represents the five mana we talked about above, but also four distinct card draw triggers. This is where the sickness that are Witch’s Cottage and Mystic Sanctuary really shine. We can choose to stack our triggers and respond to them in whatever ways are most profitable.
- Suppose Tatyova gets targeted with removal. We respond with Sakura-Tribe Scout to put Polluted Delta into play. Now we get triggers from Lotus Cobra and Tatyova, Benthic Druid. We’ll put the mana on top, let it resolve and cast Swan Song with the draw trigger on the stack. If the Swan Song gets countered, we can respond with the draw trigger still on the stack and crack delta for Mystic Sanctuary, adding another mana, another draw, and a ‘return target instant or sorcery’ trigger as well. Again we put the draw trigger on the bottom, generate a , and put the Swan Song back on top, draw it, and cast again.
- A variation of the above that bolsters our position should our second copy of Swan Song also get countered is to let the Lotus Cobra trigger from Mystic Santuary produce instead of . Then we can cast Crop Rotation, sacrificing Command Tower to convert into Bloodstained Mire or any other fetchland that grants access to swamps. That way, we get another draw trigger that may yield more countermagic or, positions us for Witch’s Cottage once we get another swamp on board.
- If Tatyova does survive a turn rotation and we get Yarok online, the doubling of Tatyova’s triggers and those created by Witch’s Cottage and Mystic Sanctuary create incredibly powerful options provided we are thoughtful with how we interleave the triggers. This reveals a little more into the benefits we can extract from Overburden, Mana Breach, and Cloudstone Curio. The Eldraine lands were designed to be one-shots, but the ‘trade-offs’ presented by the land bounce permanents actually wind up letting us skirt the Eldraine designers’ safety valve, reusing their effects over and over again.
Option 4: Even More Midrange
Instead of going for Tatyova, Benthic Druid, we could instead choose Dread Presence as our midrange card advantage engine. This requires us to spend our Crop Rotation ahead of time to look up Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, but the dividends are worth the expense.
The spot this leaves us is very similar to the Tatyova board state, but each land trigger now gives the option to shock any target. Cards in hand are something that we are always happy to see, but if we need to respond to someone’s Tymna the Weaver, Notion Thief, Laboratory Maniac, or even Jace, Wielder of Mysteries all we need are land drops to get it done. Ad Naus opponents need to tread equally lightly while this threat remains on the board since we can end their game very abruptly if they cut things too close. ‘Dread Presence’ is absolutely right. Especially once Yarok lands next turn.
All the same avenues of play from above are on the table with this position and yet we still have more flexibility with the ability to convert landfall triggers into our choice of removal or card advantage. Dread Presence even opens up some finicky lines where his shocks target himself in order to loop him back to hand with Witch’s Cottage to keep going. The most important notion to hammer home with all these effects is that they’re attached to landfall. Stifle effects don’t see much play in the cEDH world, so if your opponents want to engage in meaningful interaction, they’re going to have to get creative. That narrows the surface of opposing interaction and gives you a better chance of staying alive.
I intentionally refrained from identifying any one of these options as ‘best’ since they each have redeeming qualities that enmesh differently with various table textures. They also dovetail well with one another, so sequencing fragments of one option into another will often be profitable.
In the next segment, we’ll look at some more example board states and some different inflection points we can work around and leverage to our advantage.
Until then, feel free to hit me up in the comments below or over on reddit.