Greetings everyone, and welcome to another debut article here at Roguedeckbuilder.com
Call me Sqrawn, and read on for some deep, intensive brewing based around one of my favorite cards from Rivals of Ixalan.
Twilight Prophet is just the kind of card that captivates my imagination. It appears strange and subdued among the cast of climactic mythic rares in Rivals of Ixalan. A quiet beauty outshined by peacocks like Rekindling Phoenix, Twilight Prophet could be mistaken for an ordinary rare, another nameless Legion of Dusk cleric. It hides in plain sight, poised in shadowsmoke and blindly facing out into the light, like some ageless being ascending from a deep rest. Join me as we take a deep look into Twilight Prophet and the new Ascend mechanic from Rivals of Ixalan.
Ascend is what’s known as a threshold mechanic. In satisfying a certain condition, the threshold ability turns on and grants some kind of reward. Cards with threshold mechanics can be difficult to evaluate. Players can fall into the trap that is overestimating the likelihood of the condition being met. The ability can be taken for granted, and the card’s dazzling ceiling can distract from its pitfalls. If not carefully built around, Twilight Prophet will more often than not stand as a naked 2/4 flyer for 4 mana, its ability embarrassingly lacking.
We’ve all been burned before, and conventional wisdom warns against such cards. Twilight Prophet is a bold choice, whichever way you look at it. Scrutinizing the prophet’s low end is the easier part here. A 2/4 flying on curve is not the best you can do in competitive Standard. This opens the ascended version to that much more scrutiny. There’s no halfway game here on the ability as with other Ascend cards. No getting the extra card, no life loss for the opponent, no life gain for ourselves. It’s all or nothing, so it better be worth it!
In assessing just how good Twilight Prophet’s Ascend ability is, it’s helpful to draw comparisons where we can recognize them.
Dark Confidant jumps to the minds of most players familiar with this kind of effect. Dark Confidant has seen competitive play in every format it can and holds an impressive tournament record.
So famous is Dark Confidant with enfranchised players that its signature ability has become a welcome cliche in Black magic. A tradition has come into practice – to echo its design with various twists. Twilight Prophet joins Glint-Sleeve Siphoner in the current Standard as examples of this tradition. Twilight Prophet itself shows resemblance to a particular incarnation of Dark Confidant.
Duskmantle Seer is noteworthy for scaling up the Dark Confidant design. Standard players of the time were more impressed by the steadier instant-value 4-drops of Huntmaster of the Fells and Restoration Angel, and there was little interest in a card that went poorly both with and against Bonfire of the Damned. Its demotion from mythic to rare in Conspiracy: Take the Crown still came as some surprise. Many players held Duskmantle Seer as a respectable kind of bulk mythic. Likely pushed in rarity to compliment the multiplayer theme of Conspiracy draft, it was nevertheless a quiet statement that the game could definitely handle something like this as a rare.
The simple takeaway was that Duskmantle Seer was not strong enough to be a mythic rare in the first place. The deeper takeaway was that a design like this had room to be experimented with. Twilight Prophet’s mythic rarity invites us to draw direct comparison with Duskmantle Seer. For many this might further encourage writing Twilight Prophet off. Duskmantle Seer was once a mythic too after all, Twilight Prophet may be another flash in the pan mythic due for its own inevitable rare reprint.
So then why is Twilight Prophet a mythic rare? The legacy of Dark Confidant alone is insufficient mythic novelty by now, for we have Glint-Sleeve Siphoner in the same Standard at rare. It’s very possible that Twilight Prophet deserves to be a mythic rare on the merit of power. Specifically, Twilight Prophet may be intended to show off the power that can come from the Ascend mechanic.
Compared against Duskmantle Seer, Twilight Prophet trades in for the drawback of ascension climbing and 2 less power, and trades out of giving the opponent card advantage and losing you life. In fact, Twilight Prophet inverts this drawback into gaining life. There’s little question these differences are worth giving up 2 power for. The big question is whether or not the drawback of needing to climb ascension is a dealbreaker.
The +1 on Sorin, Grim Nemesis was the last time we saw a similarly scaled up version of the Dark Confidant ability in Standard. The comparisons can’t be made very far beyond the fact that both Twilight Prophet and Sorin, Grem Nemesis are essentially granting you this ability ‘once per turn,’ with Sorin granting you an extra occurrence on the turn you cast him and losing the lifegain. Sorin, Grim Nemesis at least indicates how we should expect to see such an ability packaged. You can weigh the ascension climb against getting a beefy planeswalker out and keeping it safe from creature attacks. You can also appreciate that Sorin costs 6 mana and Twilight Prophet costs 4. Maybe Twilight Prophet only looks like a slow alternative to Duskmantle Seer, when it’s really a fast alternative to Sorin, Grim Nemesis.
Grim Flayer came out to only a lukewarm reception following the initial release of Eldritch Moon, coming off like a crude mix between Dark Confidant and its Modern Black+Green Rock partner Tarmogoyf. Grim Flayer would later go on to become the poster boy for Delirium, the marquee threshold mechanic for its time in Standard. As anyone who’s played with Delirium can attest, satisfying a threshold mechanic is easier said than done, even with its enablers. That said, Grim Flayer is an example of a card with a threshold mechanic that has a smaller gap between the floor and ceiling of its potential. Grim Flayer even has an ability with which to feed Delirium. In this, the best Delirium comparison to make with Twilight Prophet is Ishkanah, Grafwidow.
Like Ishkanah, Grafwidow, Twilight Prophet rewards commitment to achieving a threshold. Reaching Ishkanah’s Delirium threshold yields just over double its original power and toughness, and neatly spreads those extra stats across multiple bodies. Not every powerful card needs to have that power compressed like Dark Confidant or Tarmogoyf. The lesson to be learned from the Standard stardom of Grim Flayer and Ishkanah is that reaching a threshold needn’t be trivial in order to be worthwhile.
Part of the challenge in climbing to Ascend is making the deck effective along the way, or finding opportunities where the climb can be hastened. Noting certain differences between Delirium and Ascend is also important. One big difference being that Delirium can be undone. After all your hard work attaining Delirium, an opponent could meddle with your graveyard and reset your Grim Flayer to a 2/2, or deny Ishkanah the company of her spawn.
Lacking such concerns with Twilight Prophet, we can rest assured that once we’ve finished the climb to Ascend, the City’s Blessing is there to stay. Any permanent or resolving spell with Ascend that gets to see 10 or more permanents on your side of the battlefield will automatically give you the City’s Blessing for the rest of the game, like a planeswalker emblem. What’s done is done. The only concern is getting to those 10 or more nondescript permanents. For its greater complexity, Delirium’s very specific needs made the path to the objective generally clear – there was method to Innistrad’s madness. Much like finding the lost city of Orazca, the path to Ascend is vague by comparison, and we’re spoiled for choice. Ixalan tempts us with possibilities like treasure and wonderful enchantments that hide amazing lands. We’re just going to have to carve out a path.
Our approach to achieving this feat determines the deck that is shaped around Twilight Prophet.
Ascend is the key to unlocking the prophet’s power, and that’s where our attention should be focused. Ascend asks that you amass 10 or more permanents. We really want that City’s Blessing, so we really want to hit 10 or more permanents. If we don’t have to worry about losing the City’s Blessing once we have it, then it becomes very important to try not to lose any of our permanents along the way. Lands are the most difficult kind of permanent to remove, so a ramp strategy is suited to meet this goal of climbing to Ascend.
Hour of Promise drew my attention just for being the only card in Standard able to ramp up two lands at once. Of course Hour of Promise is much more than some overpriced Explosive Vegetation or Ranger’s Path. There’s no restriction on the kind of lands you can search for, and a resolved Hour of Promise with enough deserts on the battlefield means +4 permanents. If you had 5 lands on the battlefield as you cast this, you’ll be up to 9 permanents. On your next turn, permanent number 10 can be Twilight Prophet itself. You will immediately Ascend and gain the City’s Blessing. That’s an exciting prospect to build the rest of the deck around!
Beneath the Sands and Spring / Mind let us cast Hour of Promise a full turn earlier if we get a lucky draw. We could Ascend with an active Twilight Prophet as early as turn 5. As much as Twilight Prophet appreciates being ramped up to, it’s important that a ramp deck also appreciates the card advantage and lifegain Twilight Prophet provides. It’s a symbiotic relationship – after a ramp deck’s dedicated early game leaves the hand spent and life bruised, value cards like Twilight Prophet keep it in the game and allow it to pull ahead. A subtle synergy afoot is the ramp spells’ removal of land cards from the deck. Each land taken out of the deck is by Beneath the Sands and Spring is one less possible whiff for Twilight Prophet.
These particular ramp cards also come with extra late game perks over other available options. Beneath the Sands can cycle in the late game, and gives us a meaningful action on turn 2 if we have a hand clogged with too many ramp spells. It’s always nice if your ramp spells can pull double duty, and Spring / Mind provides a late game mana sink for card advantage. It is commonplace for cards like these, versatile variants of classic cards like Rampant Growth, to have steeper mana costs to balance that versatility. In the current Standard only Thunderherd Migration exists to match the rate of traditional options like Rampant Growth or Farseek. This increases the relative power of these 3 mana ramp spells. Moreover, the higher mana cost synergizes with our star card, Twilight Prophet. And yes, revealing a Spring / Mind from the top of your library with Twilight Prophet’s ability means draining the opponent for a whopping 9 life! At 16 cards in, the core of the deck is really shaping up. We’re also at three colors – Green, Blue and Black – my personal favorite wedge, as it happens.
For all the synergy and symbiosis, Ramp decks are historically plagued with the problem of ‘drawing the wrong half of your deck.’ Whether it’s late game floods of ramp cards, or early game floods of costly cards, it’s very helpful for a Ramp deck to be able to have some means of smoothing out its draws.
Archfiend of Ifnir is another good 5 drop for us to ramp into, and takes advantage of the Cycling on Beneath the Sands in the late game. The Archfiend itself has Cycling, and the common Cycling for 2 mana we find on cards in Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation provides us with action in our early game. Something as simple as spending Turn 2 to dig a single card into our deck can make a big difference to the deck’s overall consistency. Cycling in addition to ramp compensates for cards that are dead in your hand in the early game. This deck gains tremendous depth in an area that’s often glanced over – a deck’s mana base. Between Archfiend of Ifnir and Hour of Promise, the Cycling Deserts do a lot of work for this deck. The deck also runs the Painland Deserts to provide consistency for Hour of Promise and fix mana for cycling your Deserts. Yes, the fact Desert of the Glorified and Desert of the Indomitable have colored Cycling costs is actually quite significant. It makes sequencing your land drops correctly very important, as you may find yourself short on whichever color you throw out. A nice puzzle for those who enjoy micromanaging their manabases!
Fetid Pools is a dual land with a completely generic Cycling cost. It’s better than the Cycling Deserts in every way except sometimes the way that matters most – Fetid Pools lacks the Desert typing and can sometimes give you a false sense of security. Sometimes you’ll prefer pitching a Fetid Pools and playing a Cycling Desert just because you need one for Hour of Promise. It’s still a great compliment to basic Forest for a smooth early game. Just a couple of basic Swamps and a single basic Island go in for Beneath the Sands and Spring to color fix in a pinch.
With so many Deserts in the manabase, your Ifnir Deadlands and Hashep Oasis have plenty of ammunition if the game goes long. Remember you can even get aggressive with your land sacrifices after you Ascend, since the City’s Blessing remains active even if you go below 10 permanents. You also only ever need four lands to cast Twilight Prophet. Twilight Prophet is really only dead in the early game, and by now the deck has so much action going on in the early game that casting Twilight Prophet for four mana on turn 4 will be a rarity. Even in those cases, the bulk of the deck will keep Twilight Prophet from waiting long until it does Ascend.
Since the deck has naturally maximized the consistency of zombie token generation from Hour of Promise, we can add Liliana’s Mastery and really build on this as a zombie deck! Liliana’s Mastery powers up our Hour of Promise zombie tokens and provides us with three permanents in one go to help us Ascend. Liliana, Death’s Majesty herself can create zombie tokens every turn, or return a Twilight Prophet from our graveyard as yet another zombie. Never / Return and Moaning Wall are additional options for defensive measures that can increase our permanent count. Never / Return is yet another aftermath card that doubles up on converted mana cost to drain for 7 with Twilight Prophet. Moaning Wall provides additional Cycling and helps stall attackers anywhere from Red aggro to midrange Dinosaurs. A single Moaning Wall with an active Liliana’s Mastery can even halt the attack of an opposing Scarab God. Speaking of which…
Sometimes part of making a strategy work is simply using good cards. One needs to stifle the contrarian urge to be different for different’s sake, if they are to take advantage of the opportunities available. Just like Twilight Prophet shouldn’t be written off for being risky, The Scarab God shouldn’t be written off for being safe, especially when there’s room to build upon. Most popular strategies featuring The Scarab God primarily care about taking advantage of its second and third abilities, leaving its first ability as a quaint afterthought. This deck takes full advantage of that first ability by embracing a zombie token strategy. In doing so, we gain access to one of the most powerful scry effects in Magic!
As a game goes on, The Scarab God will be able to dig for solutions and fix the top of the deck for Twilight Prophet. A boardstate of The Scarab God, a couple of zombie tokens and Twilight Prophet can very quickly run away with the game. The Scarab God can also create copies of any cycled Archfiend of Ifnir or slain Twilight Prophet. Note that like Liliana, Death’s Majesty the creature returns as a zombie, buffed by Liliana’s Mastery and of course additionally counting toward The Scarab God’s first ability.
With so much of the deck determined, it’s about time I provide a complete decklist for my creation. Some missing pieces and the sideboard cards are filled in, and discussed further.
The general sideboard plan involves either going over the top of the opponent’s strategy, or crippling it by using Dispossess and Lost Legacy.
A timely Stir the Sands, Tetzimoc, Vraska or Noxious Gearhulk can completely overwhelm an opponent. New Perspectives combos with Archfiend of Ifnir to combat creature strategies that like to go wide and then bulk up, like Merfolk or Winding Constrictor decks. Remember that Winding Constrictor causes its controller’s creatures to receive additional -1/-1 counters from Archfiend of Ifnir! Archfiend of Ifnir also offers a solution to decks that run the indestructible Rhonas or Hazoret. Lost Legacy helps deal with any opposing gods including The Scarab God and can prevent an opponent from using Vraska’s Contempt to deal with your own. Dispossess dismantles Walking Ballista, Heart of Kiran, God-Pharaoh’s Gift, and Gearhulks.
Razaketh’s Rite joins The Scarab God and our plethora of other Cycling options to help find the right card. Make no mistake, the Cycling on Razaketh’s Rite is very helpful for making the most out of a tapland flood, and with a little aggressive mulligaining your chances of being able to consistently cycle on turn 2 and ramp on turn 3 will be very high!
Mastermind’s Acquisition joins Razaketh’s Rite to help you seize the moment. Twilight Prophet’s mana cost of 4 shines in combination with these tutors. After some ramping, you can search for and drop a Twilight’s Prophet in one go. Liliana’s Mastery and The Scarab God are also strong tutor targets in the mainboard. With so much tutoring available, it makes sense to incorporate a toolbox approach to the sideboard. When New Perspectives or Tetzimoc is brought into the mainboard in Game 2, you have 6 cards to find them with, and many of your cards naturally dig through your deck.
Mastermind’s Acquisition is an amazing card that allows you to virtually sideboard in Game 1, and offers a number of tricks from your sideboard’s toolbox lineup. With Hour of Promise you can curve right into Mastermind’s Acqusition and Dispossess. Nissa and Torment of Hailfire can finish a game cold with enough mana. Nissa can be plainly sideboarded in for grindy matchups where her +2 will provide additional scry for Twilight Prophet. Nissa can even work as yet another ramp card, albeit much less reliable in a deck with so many taplands. Boneyard Parley and Overflowing Insight provide monstrous advantage when you might otherwise be spent.
There’s plenty of room for experimentation in a strategy like this, and the wonderful thing is it’s highly adjustable to specific metagames. The main weakness of the deck is limited interaction with the opponent during the early game. Attempts to add interaction in the early game are likely to dilute the ramp and Cycling package. Any early interaction like Fatal Push or Moment of Craving that isn’t used may as well be considered dead in your hand. Unlike control decks based around instants, ramp decks seek to aggressively curve out. Fatal Push and Moment of Craving are useless on turn 3 and 4 when you need to be casting Spring and Hour of Promise. It’s why ramp strategies tend to go over the top. Other weaknesses include a lack of boardwipes and battlefield artifact/enchantment removal. Maybe dropping Never / Return from the sideboard for more Liliana, Death’s Majesty for her ultimate could work out. Maybe adding Golden Demise, Vraska or another Tetzimoc instead.
If you enjoy summoning zombies or pulling off heavy sorceries in Green, Blue and Black magic, don’t be afraid to give this deck a try!
Twilight Prophet is a great and powerful vampire skymarching under the competitive radar. In brewing with it, I’ve been consistently impressed by how well it can synergize with other cards. There’s a curious, subtle effect when Twilight Prophet is put into the right deck – it makes the rest of the deck more powerful. This is one of the greater strengths of Twilight Prophet, and by implication the Ascend mechanic.
When reaching a threshold becomes worthwhile, everything done in pursuit of that threshold gains value in the form of implicit synergy. The fact Liliana’s Mastery granting 3 permanents becomes valuable in and of itself to Ascend. This value of implicit synergy becomes apparent when an opponent anticipates your intention to Ascend. The opponent might use an Abrade to kill a zombie token, in what would normally be a poor exchange. Even for just the extra tension it carried, the zombie token had increased value. The zombie creation was worthwhile and so was the opponent’s Abrade. In the case of Twilight Prophet, the ascension reward is definitely worthwhile – a 2/4 flying body with a draining Dark Confidant ability – and so Twilight Prophet implicitly increases the value of all of the permanents that build toward its ascension.
Even if Twilight Prophet didn’t make opponents lose life, it would still be a good card. Its healing is quite effective for a Black card, especially considering that Black magic tends to make you pay life for card advantage. That you can win the game as a by-product of just having Twilight Prophet out for its supportive value gives Twilight Prophet a certain inevitability, and puts pressure on the opponent. A kind of pressure resembling Baneslayer Angel or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, except unlike those creatures Twilight Prophet doesn’t even need to attack to exert its pressure!
The value of implicit synergy added to the rest of a deck by an Ascend card depends on how good the rest of the deck is to begin with – Twilight Prophet’s greatness won’t make a bad deck good. It helps if despite playing a strong role in a deck, the Ascend card can also take a backseat to what else the deck can do. This requires a deck built around the Ascend card to at least be decent if you were to then take the Ascend card out.
A great Ascend card won’t likely make a great deck broken, for how much the deck would need to be warped around the Ascend card. The sweet spot is making a decent deck good, maybe even carving out a new archetype in the process. When it comes to Twilight Prophet, it pays to be bold.