Survival of the Fittest has long been one of the most powerful spells available in the Legacy format. Decks such as RecSur, Full English Breakfast, Angry Tradewind Survival, RGB Survival Advantage, Survival Elves, Welder Survival, and countless other variants have all utilized the powerful tutoring capability and overwhelming card advantage that Survival of the Fittest can provide. A relative newcomer to the scene, Bant Survival is the latest in a long tradition of decks that seek to abuse the powerful Green enchantment. Coupling the power of Survival with the strengths of the Bant archetype, this contender has been tearing up European tournaments for the past year and is starting to rear its head across the ocean in the United States now as well.
So what exactly makes up modern Bant Survival? Typically these decks are all Blue/Green/White (Bant) and utilize the most efficient spells Bant colors have to offer. Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile provides the most efficient removal in the Legacy format, Force of Will and Brainstorm are some of the most efficient and powerful spells Blue has to offer, and no one could seriously mention creatures without bringing up Tarmogoyf. So what else makes up these decks?
Most Survival of the Fittest decks have a tendency to be relatively light on lands, but be very mana hungry to power up Survival and power out creatures. For this reason the older variants often included some mix of mana producers and accelerants in the form of Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elves, Wall of Roots, Quirion Ranger, and/or Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary. With the Alara Block came the printing of Noble Hierarch, who seems custom made for this deck, as it provides colored mana to accelerate spells out faster, pitches to Survival, and is equipped with the Exalted mechanic to make your creatures bigger in the omnipresent Tarmogoyf standoffs that frequent Legacy. Alara Block also brought another Legacy staple to the scene in the form of Qasali Pridemage, which has really single handedly changed the Legacy landscape. It also is quite mana efficient and equipped with the Exalted mechanic to make your creatures swing harder, but where it really shines is dealing with problematic enchantments and artifacts such as Counterbalance, Sigil of the Empty Throne, Seismic Assault, Survival of the Fittest, Vedalken Shackles, Phyrexian Dreadnought, Arcbound Ravager, Chrome Mox, and countless others. This has balanced the format and has brought back true aggro strategies from the face of extinction (Naya Zoo, for example).
Aside from these Bant staples, the deep card pool in Legacy has nearly limitless options when it comes to Survival applications, so let’s take a look at some of the other creature options when crafting a Bant Survival deck for our local scene.
Rhox War Monk – an efficient body with a big back side out of Lightning Bolt range, the lifelink and pitchability to Force of Will are the key factors that make this a near unanimous choice for Bant aficionados. The more Naya Zoo and aggro decks you see, the more Rhox War Monks you tend to include.
Spellstutter Sprite – while this will never have the power in this deck that it does in Faeries decks, Spellstutter can provide protection from key removal spells, and can also improve the match against Storm-based combo decks. Some oft-seen spells that can potentially be problematic for Bant which Spellstutter Sprite can help address include: Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, Kird Ape, Wild Nacatl, Spell Snare, AEther Vial, Grindstone, Stifle (on Loyal Retainers, Qasali Pridemage, or Exalted trigger, for example), Dark Ritual, Orim’s Chant, Silence, Xantid Swarm, Pithing Needle, Relic of Progenitus, and more. The drawback with Spellstutter is that it requires you to keep mana open and not be as aggressive with the deck, but with the aforementioned list of spells that it can counter you can see why it is often included by Bant pilots.
Trygon Predator – this is an absolute beast against some decks, and can really help shore up some of the deck’s weak spots. While Qasali Pridemage is really good at what it does, what it doesn’t do is keep destroying cards every turn like this can. A lonely Trygon can single-handedly wreck the board of an opposing Stax deck, Enchantress deck, Affinity deck, Painter’s Servant decks, and turn around unfavorable matchups once he starts swinging. Predator can also help deal with cards like AEther Vial, Umezawa’s Jitte, and Back to Basics from an opposing Merfolk player, helping to even out an otherwise tough (and common) matchup.
Eternal Witness – card advantage is a key concept of both Magic and Survival decks, and Witness does a fantastic job of providing card advantage. It will most often grab a destroyed or countered Survival of the Fittest or other threat, and can be key in grabbing a timely Brainstorm or Swords to Plowshares.
Vendilion Clique – another efficient body with a useful effect, Clique often finds its way into Bant decks as a 1-2 of, and can help go aggro or fly over ground standoffs. It is very useful against combo and control, but less so against aggro when you’ve spent 3 mana for a creature and your opponent will just spend 1 mana to Bolt or Path it in response to the comes into play ability.
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner – the inclusion of this in any main deck serves as protection to removal heavy decks in the field (Naya Zoo, Landstill, Tempo Threshold, BGW, etc.), and it is fantastic at what it does, which is protect your creatures. One notable interaction is also the protection it provides your creatures from Maze of Ith, which is one of the main tools that the powerful Lands.dec has against you.
Loyal Retainers + Iona, Shield of Emeria – while these cards basically do nothing on their own, their interaction with Survival is what makes them extremely powerful, and can often turn losing game states into winning ones. Shutting off all removal from an opponent, or the ability of the Merfolk player to play Blue spells, or the ability for Loam decks to cast Green spells, or Storm combo to cast Black or Blue spells are all extremely powerful interactions that make the inclusion of this two card combo very strong.
Squee, Goblin Nabob – this is a staple of Survival decks as the ability to keep coming back and provide continued fodder for Survival activations means it’s an auto-include.
Genesis – like Squee, Genesis can provide card advantage and also provides a great long game against control decks by bringing back threats from your graveyard, but is relatively mana hungry in a deck without Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary. It also doesn’t do much to address problematic matchups and scenarios for Bant Survival in general.
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary – the mana boost that this card can provide is noteworthy, but it really only shines when used in conjunction with Anger, Masticore, and/or Genesis. The trend in Survival deck building theory lately has been to exclude as many cards that are Survival dependent as possible (unless the effect is truly broken, like with Iona), so you will rarely see people include Rofellos in their Bant Survival decks as they are currently constructed.
Gaddock Teeg – shutting down all X spells and spells that cost more than 3 mana (including your own Force of Wills) is a very powerful effect in Legacy, as this often cripples combo deck, control decks, Dread Returns, Engineered Explosives, and more. This is very good, but is best used when in conjunction with other hate cards to create a barrier against your opponent’s line of attack.
Meddling Mage – one of the most skill intensive cards in Magic, this can shut down entire strategies or specific lines of play and individual cards that can hurt you. Bant pilots will often include 1-3 copies of this between the main deck and Sideboard, depending on how they feel about using the card, and also how much combo they expect to face.
Ethersworn Canonist – another useful tool in shutting down combo, this can also be used in combination with Kira, Great Glass-Spinner to form a hard lock on any targeted removal of your creatures (but obviously does nothing against mass sweepers such as Firespout).
Rafiq of the Many – this card can often create wins out of nowhere, turning your otherwise 4/5 vanilla Tarmogoyf into a 5/6 double-striking behemoth, or can create single-turn victories by turning Iona into a 8/8 flying double-striking winner. While easily removed, the effect that Rafiq can have with a creature such as Rhox War Monk is undeniably powerful, and curries favor among many Bant players because of the ability to steal wins from otherwise losing positions.
Llawan, Cephalid Empress – while this card is very narrow in application, what it provides is incredibly powerful. The effect that Llawan provides against Merfolk or an opposing Progenitus can make this a very important sideboard card.
Jotun Grunt – the 4/4 body is a nice complement to the graveyard cleaning ability that Grunt provides. He can also recycle threats from your graveyard back into your deck, but is relatively slow at cleaning out an opponent’s graveyard, and does relatively little to prevent a Dredge or Loam opponent from dredging a lot in one turn.
Loaming Shaman – like Grunt, this card provides a powerful effect, but it simply does it once when coming into play, and doesn’t permanently remove Bridge From Belows, opposing Squees, or anything else. It merely pumps them back into an opponent’s library, which might be good for the surprise effect in a single turn, but is not very good over the long haul.
Faerie Macabre – this graveyard removal effect is permanent, and can’t be countered (only Stifled or Trickbinded), so while this relies on Survival being in play to find most often, it usually ends up in Bant Survival sideboards because the other options are also fundamentally flawed.
Trinket Mage – this can find a number of useful artifacts like Pithing Needle or Engineered Explosives (or even Grindstone if you wanted to include Painter’s Servant and really try to be cute), but as mentioned with Rofellos, the trend in Survival construction has been to move away from cute tricks and toolbox packages and towards making the deck more consistent and powerful when Survival is not in play.
AEther Vial, Daze, Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, or other?
There are a handful of available slots when looking at options besides creatures in Bant Survival, and some people will often fill these slots with either AEther Vial or another form of counterspell or protection. While AEther Vial is great at slipping creatures in under counters and creating cute combat tricks, it really doesn’t do much to advance the agenda of Bant Survival’s strategy, which is to either overrun the opponent with threats or to play out threats and protect them. Another counterspell will go a long ways towards protecting you from the opponent as well as increasing the number of Blue cards to potentially pitch to Force of Will. Daze, Spell Snare, and Spell Pierce are most often under consideration for slots in aggro-control decks, so let’s examine what they can each provide.
When choosing amongst the three options above for additional protection in the deck, one must ask what the spell must do and what it will accomplish in its role. Daze is often best within the first two turns of a game, when forcing through an important early spell or stopping the opponent from curving out an explosive draw in the early turns. This will force you into fetching a Blue producing land very early and set you back a land drop when cast, which must be carefully weighed in a mana hungry but land-light deck such as Bant Survival.
Spell Pierce is relatively limited in that it can’t stop creatures from landing on the board (which will nibble away at your life and thus provide you less turns), but it can also be used to force through an important early spell (like a Blue Duress, essentially), and can also stunt the development of important early plays from opposing decks (such as Counterbalance, AEther Vial, Force of Will, Manabond, etc.). It is naturally very good against combo decks, as they generally rely on either chaining together cheap spells or hitting a certain mana point and then casting a powerful spell (Show and Tell, for example). For this reason it would probably be better served as a sideboard card against these matchups, as Legacy is a creature-centric format in general and this does nothing to address that.
Spell Snare is relatively limited as a counterspell in that it can only stop spells with a converted mana cost of 2, but a large chunk of the Legacy format’s best spells are ringing in at the 2 mana slot. Problematic spells for Bant Survival that could potentially be solved by Spell Snare include: Devastating Dreams, Counterbalance, Qasali Pridemage, Fire/Ice, Hymn to Tourach, Smallpox, Dark Confidant, Engineered Explosives for 2, Umezawa’s Jitte,Tarmogoyf, Lord of Atlantis, Arcbound Ravager, Survival of the Fittest (mirror), Painter’s Servant, Standstill, and a few others. Because of this, I’ve chosen to go with Spell Snare in the listing I present below, as it just does the best job of dealing with these potentially problematic cards, and there is no playing around a Spell Snare like there is by waiting another turn to make a land drop and then play around Daze.
As noted above, Noble Hierarch is a natural fit as a mana source for this deck, and can help reduce the number of lands to play. Most modern Survival variants play 18-20 lands, depending on what other search and accelerants they sport. In the version below I have 19 lands, which I feel is a good number with the amount of cantrips (Brainstorm and Ponder) also being employed. While any deck may occasionally get mana flooded, it is very important to hit your land drops early with this deck, and also to have enough basic lands to play around Wasteland, Blood Moon, and Back to Basics. There is little reason not to have a solid manabase, because extra lands can always be shuffled away with Brainstorm or Ponder, but lack of lands can lead to game and match losses.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at a sample decklist.
Bant Survival 20101Q 1.0, by Jaco 02-01-2010
4 Force of Will
3 Spell Snare
4 Swords to Plowshares
4 Survival of the Fittest
4 Noble Hierarch
2 Rhox War Monk
2 Spellstutter Sprite
2 Qasali Pridemage
1 Trygon Predator
1 Eternal Witness
1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
1 Loyal Retainers
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Squee, Goblin Nabob
Based on the options I’ve laid out above, this is a relatively straight forward main deck, balanced for an open tournament where I’ll expect to face against Aggro, Combo, Control, and any other random decks that you run across in tournaments. There is no over-reliance on Rhox War Monk, Spellstutter Sprite, or Survival, and the deck’s manabase is constructed to be able to fetch any basics I may need and also play very well with Brainstorm and Ponder. Here’s a sample sideboard to examine in conjunction with the deck above.
Sideboard A (15)
3 Spell Pierce
2 Path to Exile
2 Krosan Grip
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Faerie Macabre
1 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Gaddock Teeg
1 Meddling Mage
1 Rhox War Monk
1 Loxodon Hierarch
Spell Pierce, Canonist, Meddling Mage, and Gaddock Teeg is a nice suite of cards to bring in against combo, and things like Path to Exile and Rafiq are great against random tribal, aggro, and aggro-control decks. Hierarch is a pretty good card against aggro and combo alike, because the life boost is instant once it comes into play (unlike Rhox War Monk), and can really change the opponent’s calculations on how to deal with your life total. Other great sideboard options are extra Rhox War Monks, Relic of Progenitus, Llawan, Cephalid Empress, as well as catch-all answers like Propaganda, Pithing Needle, and Umezawa’s Jitte. Opponent’s will often target your graveyard and/or Survival of the Fittest, so options like a second Squee or more Eternal Witnesses can also provide value out of the sideboard to offset hate you might face. Like any deck, you’ll want to tailor your sideboard to shore up your weakest matchups that you actually expect to face that day in a tournament.
With these choices in mind you’re now armed with the knowledge of how to construct Bant Survival for your next tournament. Two massive Legacy Grand Prixs are on the horizon, as well as the StarCityGames $5K series, as well as countless large monthly tournaments across Europe and the USA. Join us again soon as we’ll take a look at how to actually play Bant Survival against common matchups you’re likely to see.