Ways To Deal With Spiritmonger
Card Name: Spiritmonger
In most environments, there is a card or cards that any deck must be able to handle in order to function well. These cards are the cards that are good enough that you KNOW people will play them, and are also good enough that any deck without a good way of dealing with them will very probably roll over and die once they materialize on the board. Probably the best examples of this up until now were Lin Sivvi, a card which wins games all by itself if not checked in some fashion, and Saproling Burst (AKA "Green Ball Lightning.") Apocalypse gave us a new one in the form of the beast above.
When a card such as this appears, there are generally two choices for players: Beat 'em or join 'em. That is to say, find a way to effectively deal with the power card in question, or simply play with it yourself and solve the issue that way. In some cases (Masticore) the powerhouse has been colorless, vastly simplifying the issue. This time it is not so clear. For those of us who do not wish to play a primarily Green/Black (and, as we shall see, probably White) deck, what recourse is there? I've never been one to let Wizards make my deck for me, and Apocalypse is probably the most blatant example of this since the Rebel search mechanic (not counting ideas that didn't pan out, such as Citadel of Pain.dec or Warped Devotion). As a result, I've been spending quite some time thinking about how I'm going to deal with this monstrosity come July 1. Let me share with you...
WAYS TO DEAL WITH SPIRITMONGER
First of all, keep in mind that anything without a "cannot be regenerated" clause is, generally speaking, useless against Spiritmonger... unless your opponent is stupid or you get lucky, neither one of which is a circumstance that serious Magic players enjoy relying on. Also keep in mind that Spiritmonger is black to start out with, and can always be made that way for a mere 1 green mana if he should ever be another color for some reason-- this fact makes a large portion of black's removal useless as well. Similarly, Circle of Protection, Story Circle and any similar effects are all but useless. Lastly, I will choose not to mention Arrest, Pacifism, or similar measures, as these are permanents and have to remain in play to do any good-- again, unwise to rely upon.
Sorted by color:
Red is, to put it bluntly, up the creek without a paddle when it comes to dealing with Spiritmonger. In order for red to deal with this threat, it must make use of another color. Black is probably the best choice, yielding the gold card Terminate (discussed later on.)
Green's situation is only marginally better than Red's. The sole mono-color answer here comes in the form of regenerating blockers, of which there are precious few left of any quality. (Horned Troll comes to mind-- do you see what I mean?) Again, it would be desirable to mix green with another color to find a better solution.
With white comes the first really suitable answer in the form of Wrath of God and its close cousin, Rout. Both of these send the Spiritmonger packing, along with any other unfortunate creatures that happen to be in play at the time. Most of the decks that utilize White to any great degree already have Wrath effects either maindeck or sideboard, so this will not require any great adjustment. It's a rare, of course, which can be a problem for some people. Keep in mind, however, that this card is and will continue to be one of White's main bombs, so that an investment in 3 or 4 of them will not be wasted. If targeted removal is more your thing, Afterlife will shrink the Spiritmonger down to a much more manageable 1/1 flier. Just be careful not to let yourself die to beatdown from the token. Few things are more embarassing.
For most of the other colors, the answer to Spiritmonger involves finding a way to blow the damn thing up, pure and simple. Blue, as you might expect, is a bit sneakier. To begin with, there is a rather healthy amount of bounce available. Boomerang or Repulse the sucker on your opponent's turn, untap, and show your opponent what "counter target spell" does when they try to replay it. Just keep in mind that Wash Out, Hibernation and other color-based effects probably won't work as well. Once you get to five or more mana, more options become available. Bribery is always fun-- if your opponent has one Monger, they probably have more, right? This works best in a Blue/Black/whatever deck, where you'll have black mana of your own to regenerate the stolen creature. Once you get to eight mana, you can skip searching your opponent's library and just take the one they already have, via Dominate. Nothing beats force-feeding an evil mage a bit of their own medicine.
Black has a number of cards that would theoretically eliminate this threat, but most of them are costed too high to be much good-- Plague Wind and Avatar of Woe, for example. The one that would be good enough to see some play is Tsabo's Decree, which is already being used in a lot of sideboards and even some main decks anyway. The advantages are the ability to cast it at instant speed and nail anything in their hand as well, along with any other creatures of type Beast (Blastoderm, anyone?) The disadvantage is that it costs six mana, which could sometimes be too late considering that Green/Black has more mana acceleration available to it than mono-Black or Black/any other color.
Most of the gold cards are variations on themes that they take from their various colors. Only a few of them are viable. Terminate, of course, is one of the most obvious anti-Spiritmonger measures, and has the advantage of whacking just about anything else as well. If you are already playing one of the two colors, you are probably best off just splashing the third and packing four of these. Recoil is also an option-- it is a bounce spell, as discussed above, and has the advantage of being a virtual Terminate if you catch your opponent with hand empty. Temporal Spring is a "better" bounce spell, but is a sorcery... ick.
In conclusion to this section, I would have to say that Terminate is your best option, followed closely by Wrath or Rout, although both are superb options for their colors. (I view Terminate as a red spell that requires a black splash, due to the fact that G/B is probably much better than R/B at the moment, so there is really no reason to splash red into a black deck as opposed to any other color.) Blue is a distant third, but not without its arsenal of tricks. Green and black are the most vulnerable, but then, many decks in these colors are already playing with the Spiritmonger and all the other nice broken cards.
Which reminds me, any deck with Spiritmonger is probably going to make use of a few other cards as well. Let me tell you what I think of some of the more blindingly obvious ones, and tell you what I think of them.
Pernicious Deed: Call it the new Nevinyrral's Disk or the new Powder Keg, both extremely apt references to power cards of sets past. If your opponent plays this early, you may be able to use an enchantment removal spell on it before your opponent can activate it for as much as they'd like. Later on, however, it is probable that they will have enough mana open to activate it in response anyway, so you might as well save your removal unless you are trying to force them to use it. Treat it as you would any board-sweeping effect: try to hold stuff back. Don't overcommit. It will still be a pain, but there probably is no better way of dealing with it unless you're playing countermagic.
Vindicate: Make no mistake, this is a powerful card, but I really don't think it is that scary. It doesn't give White or Black any abilities they didn't have before, it just gives them a little more versatility. As with a Disenchant, Dark Banishing, or whatever, play around it. Try to bait your opponent into casting them if they have any before you play your key cards. The good part: it's a sorcery, which means your opponent can't mess with your head on your turn.
Death Grasp: I can't wait to hear R&D's excuse for this one. "Let's reprint Drain Life, but make it so you can use any color mana to drain with! Just to make sure it isn't too powerful, though, we'll make it ENEMY COLORED! That's the ticket!" *sigh* Again, not much you can do short of countermagic. It is a damage-dealing effect, of course, so a Circle of Protection/Story Circle of the appropriate color will stop it, and Worship will keep you from dying to it. Any color except for White (and Blue) gets to watch numbly as their opponent effects a huge life swing.
Phyrexian Arena: This enchantment doesn't produce an effect as dramatic as anything else I've covered in this article, but make no mistake-- all other things being equal, an opponent who draws twice (or three, or four, or five times) as many cards as you do will beat you down. The best thing to do is to take it out as soon as possible, using any removal or bounce spell. Alternatively, if you are playing a deck that can beat down efficiently, such as Fires, you might choose to leave it be and hope that you can take advantage of the life loss to kill your opponent quickly. This strategy has worked for me at least once, but is fraught with peril-- a few Death Grasps or Soul Feasts and suddenly you don't look too good at all. Oh, and just for the record, it occured to me that Phyrexian Tyranny would be a hilarious way of punishing Arena players for their greediness, but I'm not going to try to make it work. If someone out there manages to do so, tell me!
Duress: This can throw a hole into your plans real fast. Most of the "Spiritmonger solutions" I mentioned are noncreature, nonland cards, meaning that they can get stripped out of your hand on the first turn if you're unlucky. Again, there is no way to deal with this other than to pray, or, if you're Blue, use Brainstorm (Brainstorm in response to a discard spell, then put anything you want to keep safe on the top of your library.) In short, you want your hate cards to be near the top of your library, but you don't want to actually have them in your starting hand if you can help it. Does that make any sense at all?
Why is Black so good all of a sudden? Also, it's been about as long since Red was good as it's been since Black was good, if not longer. Does that mean that you will be breaking Red in the next few sets? I sure hope so.
One last thing. A lot of the decklists I've seen only have 2 or 3 Spiritmongers, which I find odd. Seems to me that with such a low casting cost, and being partially green, you'd want to run 4 so you could draw one, drop it on turns 2-4, and beat down. But even if your opponent runs 4 of every card on this list, they are still subject to luck of the draw. You will probably win a lot of games where your opponent doesn't draw very many threats (or doesn't draw more than you can handle) and you just win doing whatever your deck is supposed to do. Conversely, there will be days when you don't see a single one of your answer cards and you lose in three turns to the undercosted beast. We are all used to that already, and in reality these cards aren't that much more obscene than Lin Sivvi, Phyrexian Scuta or Saproling Burst. New and experienced players alike will deal with it as we always have. I hope this article provided you with a start in that direction.