Saturday, June 30, 2012

Who Watches the Watchwolf?

"I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." - George Bernard Shaw.

Hello everyone out there on the "intar-nets", my name is Nina Illingworth and welcome back to another edition of my blog; The Cardboard Witch. Recently I had the good fortune/opportunity to get one of my articles published on what I consider one of the up and coming MtG websites in the industry; Jon Medina's own For those of you who haven't checked it out, you can find the article here; it's an in-depth review of M13's Rancor and unlike my blog it was professionally edited! I mention this now for two reasons: 
  1. Shameless self promotion. Writers generally prefer it when people read their work afterall. *grin*
  2. As the Rancor article mentions; I'm quite old by MtG standards and have been playing this game for a very long time. I began playing Magic casually in Fallen Empires and started entering local Magic tournaments just a little while after the release of Ice Age.
Of course there have been a few interruptions along the way but working in a store that sells Magic and Magic singles always kept me closely connected to the game whether I was playing or not. Over the years I have been truly blessed to experience so much of Magic's rich history on a first hand basis and I find myself fascinated by the way our game simultaneously repeats itself while still finding room to constantly change and evolve. In this way Magic can be likened to a great, never-ending symphony; each new block/set functions as a variation on the themes and concepts presented before it while still retaining that "old familiar beat" to unify the work as a whole. To bring this tortured analogy to a close; if you've been listening to the "song" for long enough you'll know when the good parts are coming up because you've heard previous versions of that motif. This brings us to the upcoming release of M13 and the return of one of my favorite monsters in Magical history; the 3/3 for 2 mana "Watchwolf". Without further delay then, please allow me to introduce Flinthoof Boar, the latest (and arguably greatest) incarnation of my beloved wolf and the reason I'm waxing nostalgic about undercosted beaters here on my blog. Before we break down this wolf in pig's clothing however, I'd like to talk more about my personal history of "chasing the Watchwolf" in constructed Magic. You see folks, I literally have some kind of obsession with casting 3/3's on turn 2. While others fawn over utility "Bears" I've always been a sucker for virtually any 2-drop critter that fights above it's weight class on the basis of raw numbers alone. In fact, looking back on my Magic experience I've discovered that I can mark much of my personal history entirely by which version of Watchwolf I was playing at the time!  

To be fair, Watchwolf itself was hardly the first time I fell madly in love with a 2 drop 3/3 critter in my life. Some of my fondest memories of my first go around with tournament Magic revolve around beating my opponents to a fine paste with Mogg Flunkies in Dead Guy Sligh style decks for example. Back then I wasn't a very good player but even I could tell that a 3/3 would beat 2/2's in combat all day; while Cursed Scroll probably won me a *lot* more games, I personally thought the Flunkies were the best card in my deck at the time. In reality the Flunkies were the ultimate boom/bust card and their drawback made them very awkward in a Sligh deck. In fact they weren't even included in the best versions of the Sligh deck itself. Pro Tour Los Angeles (98) was won by a build with 4 copies of Ironclaw Orc and zero copies of Mogg Flunkies; presumably because the last thing an aggressive Red deck would want to do is skip an attack phase for any reason. I was however blind to these faults because I wasn't strong enough as a player to understand anything more than "bigger is better", drawbacks be damned. I really can't tell you how many games I lost to "Flunkie lock" back then but I am willing to bet it was more than just a couple. What I can say with absolute certainty is that there were many, many more games I won at least in part because my Mogg Flunkies were simply bigger than the creatures my opponents were casting in the early game. Despite my overall lack of skill as a player it was pretty hard to actually lose games with openings like:

Turn 1 Jackal Pup
Turn 2 Mogg Flunkies
Turn 3 Ball Lightning
Turn 4 Some combination of Incinerate, Shock, Fireblast

I even remember times when better, more established players in my environment would scowl when I cast a turn 2 Flunkie before openly criticizing my use of such an all or nothing card. Unfortunately their admonitions fell on deaf ears; at that point I was simply locked into the idea that 3/3 is "strictly better" than 2/2 and since I was willfully ignoring the times when my Flunkie couldn't attack or block my play experiences appeared to support that conclusion. Virtually nothing could convince me to give up my Mogg Flunkies; that is of course until Urza's Saga introduced me to Albino Troll. I snap dropped my Mountains for Forests in about 5 seconds flat after seeing what this block had to offer; Pouncing Jaguar was an improved Jackal Pup and Albino Troll was basically a Mogg Flunkie on steroids. Looking back I can safely say that I fell into the same trap with Mono-Green Stompy as I had with Mono-Red Sligh.  In my obsession with "numbers" I was completely blind to the fact that Echo was a serious drawback; fortunately I also had Gaea's Cradle and Rancor to hide behind this time in the same way I'd hid behind Cursed Scroll and Fireblast before. Once again I won a lot of games on the back of these better cards all the while believing that my kitties and trolls had carried me to victory. Naturally, this relationship too would pass eventually; Albino Troll rotated out of Type 2 and after a brief but ultimately unfulfilling relationship with Rotting Giant I drifted away from aggro strategies and learned how to play control/tempo decks for a while.  

Months passed and as the cycle of Magic ground ever forward I found myself getting "off the ride" so to speak when Darksteel was finally spoiled. I won't get into it here but it's fair to say I was not a huge fan of Disciple of the Vault, Arcbound Ravager or the Affinity mechanic in a format full of quite literally free artifacts. Sadly my self imposed exile would actually cause me to miss the release of Watchwolf itself and it was by sheer chance that another 3/3 for 2 happened to bring me back to Magic again; at least casually.

I had recently acquired a playset of Umezawa's Jitte for a very reasonable price from a friend getting out of Standard. I wasn't playing at the time but just reading Jitte made me want to build a deck around this obviously broken card, so I bought them anyways. The next day at work I was pretty pleased with myself and more than willing to show off my new purchase to anyone who showed the slightest interest in Magic whatsoever. My memory is a little hazy but as I recall, that day I got into one of those silly, raging nerd arguments with a customer at my shop. He maintained that I had wasted my money; the card was not that powerful and even if it was, the environment had warped to include maindeck artifact hate specifically to neutralize Jitte. We argued in circles for at least an hour before frustration and my need to get back to "real work" lead me to boldly declare that "Jitte is so broken I can throw it into a Ravnica block deck with no rares and still beat your crappy Standard decks that don't run Jitte!" To my complete and utter shock he accepted my challenge and after informing me that he would be back tomorrow to "settle this once and for all" marched directly out the door. As I stared at the empty doorway in horror it dawned on me that I probably should have kept my big mouth shut; of course I was far too young, proud and arrogant to accept that at the time. I was absolutely determined to prove the customer wrong and as soon as traffic died down I grabbed the Guildpact Binder and went to work. Luckily for me, the Magic gods were smiling that day because nestled in the back of the binder I found my newest love: Scab-Clan Mauler. I may not have been an expert on "current" Magic but I certainly knew an improved Flunkies/Albino Troll when I saw one and I immediately decided to build my entire deck around the Mauler. I quickly threw together a fast and dirty R/G aggro deck with cards like Tin Street HooliganScorched Rusalka and Skarrgan Pit-Skulk. To be honest with you the deck was pretty terrible but both Scab-Clan Mauler and Jitte performed admirably and I managed to eke out a 6-4 victory in the "battle of the know-it-alls" the next day at work. More importantly I was hooked on Magic again; before long I was building multiple casual and semi-competitive Magic decks almost entirely out of cards I found lying around the shop. I did eventually discover Watchwolf itself and I'm not ashamed to admit I had a wonderful time combining it with Armadillo Cloak in near endless games of casual Magic.

Unfortunately a lack of general funds would push me back out of even casual Magic just before the release of Time Spiral. At the time I was spending a great deal of time/money playing Legend of the Five Rings competitively and due to a change in my work hours I simply couldn't afford to keep updating my Magic decks anymore. I missed virtually all of Time Spiral block and it was once again only random chance that brought me back to Magic. One night I happened to be working in the shop when our Tournament Organizer was holding a draft with the brand new Lorwyn set and desperately searching for an 8th player. While I wasn't exactly thrilled about the prospect I agreed to sit in for at least the first round and legitimately surprised myself by finishing 2nd overall in the tournament while learning the cards as I went. I ended up rolling through the early rounds with a mono-U Merfolk tribal deck built around 4 copies of Silvergill Douser but I lost a tough 3 game set in the finals to an absolutely wicked G/B Elf deck. The first two games were pretty back and fourth affairs but in game 3 my opponent cast a turn 2 Wren's Run Vanquisher and I immediately lost on two levels; first I lost the match but I also lost another battle with my Magic addiction. Within 48 hours I'd already purchased 4 Vanquishers, 4 Imperious Perfects and a full set of Gilt-Leaf Palaces so I could build a variety of awesome block Elf decks. By this point in my Magic journey however I'd become a seasoned veteran of competitive card gaming and even the "best Albino Troll ever" couldn't keep me from seeing how powerful Faeries were. Within a couple of weeks I'd built a "Lorwyn-only" Faeries deck around ridiculous cards like Thoughtseize, Mistbind Clique and Spellstutter Sprite. Naturally there were still a tremendous number of "janky" cards in the deck; I was using Pestermite, MB Clique and Familiar's Ruse as a soft control engine for example. I also had to make do with cards like Nightshade Stinger, Peppersmoke and Scion of Oona simply due to tribal/set requirements but overall this deck would turn out to be frightfully similar to the Fae decks that would define Standard after the release of Morningtide. This was all lost on me at the time though; I just knew I had two tribal decks and while the Faeries deck was good enough to beat many Type 2 decks (using only Lorwyn cards) the Elf deck was way more fun to play. In fact to this day I still have a completely foiled out "no rares" casual Elf Warriors deck made entirely out of Shadowmoor/Lorwyn cards (and 4 Lawnmower Elves obviously) while the Faeries deck was torn apart for resale roughly 30 seconds after Bitterblossom was released.

This time however my return to Magic was more than just fleeting; I kept drafting Lorwyn block as often as 3-4 times a week and as my collection grew I built several casual "no-rares" block decks out of the cards I'd drafted. I guess in retrospect that it was really only a matter of time before I found my way back to tournament Magic; after drafting religiously through all of Zendikar block I finally took the plunge back into constructed  with the release of M11. I was older this time, wiser and more prepared to accept the advice of others when building my decks; for a while my obsession with Watchwolves was completely forgotten as I immersed myself in a world of Jace the Mind Sculptors, Primeval Titans and Lotus Cobras. Over time the weeks became months and eventually a year passed while I played primarily control and ramp decks with a little bit of Red Deck Wins thrown in for good measure.  Actually, it was while updating my then-current build of RDW that I stumbled across an M12 spoiler featuring Stormblood Berserker and my love affair with the "Watchwolf" began anew. Suddenly I was 21 years old all over again and staring at probably the single best 3/3 for 2 in the history of Magic; I was immediately overcome by the urge to turn creatures sideways with reckless abandon once more. Unfortunately no matter how hard I tried I was never able to work more than two copies of the Berserker into that version of the deck but when Goblin Guide and Plated Geopede finally rotated I was ready to spring into action. I showed up to the very first Innistrad legal FNM at my store with a deck built around the Berserkers, Stromkirk Noble, Chandra's Phoenix and Shrine of Burning Rage. To say this deck was successful would be a mild understatement; I very easily went 4-0 while gleefully casting "Watchwolves" all day.  What's more, the deck kept winning for a little over a month; through a little bit of skill and likely a whole lot of luck I managed to amass a 31-1 record in sanctioned tournaments with it before my environment finally caught up. Eventually the combination of Snapcaster Mages and Timely Reinforcements reached a critical mass at my local FNM and I was forced to mothball the design if I wanted to keep winning tournaments. Although I would go on to play U/W Tempo decks based around Geist of Saint Traft for the better part of the next year, I didn't forget how much I loved slamming a 3/3 Berserker on turn 2; I was merely biding my time, waiting for the next "Watchwolf".

Fast forward to today and the end of the narrative portion of this article; it's 5 AM here in Toronto and I'm wide awake staring at what may well be the new best "Watchwolf" in the history of Magic. Frankly I'm having a hard time deciding if I'm more excited about this or the reprint of Rancor. Honestly it probably doesn't matter since both cards likely go into the same deck together; I'm just thrilled to have my wolf back! Oh sure, this time he's a pig and that's going to take some getting used to; after all I don't think we'll be seeing any "boar" based tribal strategies in the new Standard. I can also state with reasonable confidence that this will lead to numerous, groan-worthy "bacon" puns by world renowned Channel Fireball author and Pro Tour master Luis Scott-Vargas in his M13 set review. You could even say that I'm counting on him to "ham" it up when he reviews Flinthoof Boar (sorry, I could not resist!). Aside from a bad tribal trait and some pretty crummy art however all the trademark signs of the elusive "Watchwolf" are there:
  • He costs 2 mana
  • He can reasonably be cast as a 3/3 on turn 2
  • He has some sort of drawback: in this case you'll need a Mountain in play for him to evolve from "bear" to "wolf".

Let's talk about that drawback for a moment shall we? The boar itself costs G1 for a natural 2/2 but if you want to buff it up to 3/3 you'll have to play a Mountain of some kind. Are you kidding me? I'm no prophet but something tells me this isn't going to be a real problem; G/R is already one of the better color combinations in Magic and the presence of Rootbound Crag in M13 implies that this isn't going to change anytime soon.  As far as "drawbacks"go this one is almost negligible; Flinthoof Boar will certainly be more forgiving than than Mogg Flunkies, Albino Troll or Wren's Run Vanquisher ever were.  He's also more resilient against early disruption than either of the Bloodthirsty options on our list.  Ask yourself a simple question; what's easier to do in Magic:
  • Cast a 1 drop and have it survive to deal damage on your second turn; alternately draw Gutshot in your first 7-8 cards?
  • Play a Mountain?

Flinthoof Boar even manages to out-wolf the Watchwolf itself; after all you can play the pig if you don't have a Mountain in play but absolutely nothing is going to help you cast a Watchwolf if you can't make both W and G mana.  In other words; there simply has never been a 3/3 for 2 mana that's as easy to both cast and use as Flinthoof Boar.

While it's hard to argue that the pig isn't the most painless Watchwolf in Magic's history things get a little bit murkier when you start comparing printed abilities. Obviously Haste is pretty awesome when it's on an undercosted, overpowered beatstick. Unfortunately "the Boar" doesn't work cheap and you'll have to spend a Red mana to give him the ability, thereby significantly reducing his value as an early damage platform. In my mind this probably isn't worth it early; I expect most of the time Flinthoof Boar will come down as a blank 3/3 on turn 2 and you'll only use his haste ability when you topdeck additional copies as the game wears on.  This late game versatility is certainly better than Mogg Flunkies' drawback and a blank textbox on Watchwolf but it's probably worse than all of the other "wolves" mentioned in this article. Personally I think the lack of a real drawback and the ability to consistently deploy a 3/3 on turn 2 will easily make up for the fact that a certain percentage of the time Flinthoof Boar is going to be blank; sometimes this really is just a game of numbers after all.     

Now that we've talked a little bit about how this card stacks up historically against other "Watchwolves" let's shift gears and look at how Flinthoof Boar fits into the upcoming Standard environment. As of this moment I'd have to say that his prospects of seeing regular constructed play immediately upon release are mixed. Don't get me wrong; even in a maxed out (8 set) Standard a simple 3/3 for two has significant value in the right kind of deck so I'm not saying he absolutely won't see play until rotation.  Sheer numbers aside however, the fact is that the current builds of G/R aggro are forest heavy/mountain light and this is unlikely to change in the pig's favor as long as Rancor and Dungrove Elder are both legal at the same time.  What's more the current G/R aggro strategy revolves around casting Birds/Elves on turn 1 and will often involve skipping directly past 2 drops to cast a 3CC card on the second turn. Finally despite not really needing or wanting a 2 drop on it's nuttier draws, G/R aggro already has a strong 2 mana play in the form of Strangelroot Geist. While the raging spirit isn't 3/3 he does come with Haste for free and essentially has a "second life" because of Undying in most game situations. He's also GG so running him and the Boar together becomes a somewhat tricky proposition with the current manabase available to us in Standard. Of course, this assumes that neither of the two major Green aggro strategies (Dungrove, G/R Swords) changes in response to M13; if for example these decks adapt to include cards like Thundermaw Hellkite then the Boar actually becomes easier on the manabase and is therefore a much better fit. Additionally the reprinting of Rancor in the upcoming Core set could spawn entirely different base Green aggro strategies than the ones we already see in Standard; no matter how you slice it, turn 2 Flinthoof Boar into turn 3 Rancor is a legitimate threat to clock your opponent out of the game incredibly quickly.     

By now I would imagine that you're asking yourself "if the card is going to be a marginal player that has to fight for deck slots on release, why is she so damn excited?" Fair question and frankly I'm half-tempted to say "because Watchwolves are awesome dummy" but that isn't the answer. The real reason I'm so excited about Flinthoof Boar is because I fully expect WotC to reprint the Ravnica block "shocklands" in Return to Ravnica; particularly Stomping Grounds. This belief is based on an absolutely huge amount of supporting evidence and detailing it fully would be another article in and of itself so I won't bother here. I will say that when the base set replaces Rampant Growth with Farseek you don't need to be Nostradamus to see the writing on the wall.  Besides, how can you print a set called "Return to Ravnica" with completely new dual lands? Isn't Ravnica one giant, massively overdeveloped city?  You'd think that if there were other vortexes of mixed mana available we'd have already discovered them in that case wouldn't you? I'm only joking of course but I think it's certainly fair to suggest that if WotC doesn't reprint Ravnica shocklands the customer base as a whole will be both shocked and disappointed. To be fair reprinting Stomping Grounds won't solve all of the mana problems in aggressive G/R decks post-rotation but it will certainly do a long way towards improving them. Combined with the rotation of stalwarts like Sword of War & Peace and Dungrove Elder it's not hard to imagine a format where Flinthoof Boar is a vital lynchpin in G/R aggro strategies; serving alongside cards like Strangleroot Geist and Wolfir Avenger rather than attempting to replace them. The downside to this of course is that if history does repeat itself exactly the Gruul dual wasn't released until Guildpact came out and that means we might have to wait as long as 6 months to unlock the pig's true potential in Standard. 

Well folks, if you can believe it "that's about all I have to say about Watchwolves." I'd like to thank anyone still reading this far for humoring a crazy old woman on a mad romp down memory lane for the first half of this article. Sometimes it's just fun to share our stories and looking back I'd have to say my irrational love affair with these cards has significantly shaped who I am as a Magic player. My "time with the wolves" is at once an epic love story and a squalid tale of self delusion based on my slavish devotion to numbers; thank you for letting me share it. As you can clearly see I have impulse control problems when the subject matter is Watchwolves and the guys at WotC aren't helping by printing me a card like Flinthoof Boar. I have very high hopes indeed for the pig as Standard evolves but the truth of the matter is that I'll probably play him even if he turns out to be just a marginal card; after all these years I'm still helplessly addicted to 3/3 creatures you can slam down on turn 2. As always thank you for reading folks, keep it weird and always remember "never, ever bring a bear to a wolf fight."




  1. 3/3 for two. <3. Just big enough to always be relevant, just cheap enough to pass the doom blade test.

    I probably won't look at it seriously until Stomping Ground though, giving up Restoration Angel is not something I'm willing to do in my green decks.

  2. I'm okay with G/R over G/W; there are some pretty good arguments for the combination being "better" despite the lack of Angel. The real issue for me is that the Pig just doesn't work well with the cards already in that deck. I want to believe he's better than Geist/Avenger but I'm struggling to convince myself that it's true.

  3. Informative and somewhat retrospective article as usual nina, though historically it seems have not been too kind on the watchwolves solely on the fact that they always tend to go paired with a combo deck coming just around the bend and then durdle around for a while.