One Simple Idea - Understanding Dreadhorde Arcanist
Creature - Zombie Wizard
Whenever Dreadhorde Arcanist attacks, you may cast target instant or sorcery card with converted mana cost less than or equal to Dreadhorde Arcanist's power from your graveyard without paying its mana cost. If that card would be put into your graveyard this turn, exile it instead.
Dreadhorde Arcanist, printed in War of the Spark has completely dominated the Legacy scene the past few weeks, in a variety of different forms. It was not immediately obvious (to me at least!) that this card would see Legacy play at all, as there are a lot that needs to go right to generate value from the card. You have to untap with it, and it also has to attack, which is quite an ask in Legacy from certain decks.
In this piece, I'm going to dive into what makes this card so good, and what shells it takes takes to the next level.
Secrets of the Arcane Unraveled
Dreadhorde Arcanist has quite a lot of text on it, and it is not easily parsable to understand why the card is so powerful. It is very easy, however, to immediately see downsides of the card: It's a 2 mana 1/3 that has to attack in order to do anything at all. In such a high-efficacy format as Legacy, it's got to have quite an effect when it attacks in order to be remotely playable. Thankfully, Legacy is also the format full of powerful 1 CMC spells, and thus, when Dreadhorde Arcanist attacks, the level of efficay and powerful 1 CMC spells allow the player attacking with it to often run away with the game.
So what sorts of spells are we looking to use Dreadhorde Arcanist with in order to snowball the game? There are two different directions you can take Dreadhorde Arcanist decks can take: Fair and Unfair.
Using Arcanist in Fair Decks
Dreadhorde Arcanist sees most of its play in Legacy today within fair decks, often utilizing Delver of Secrets and the shell around it, as Delver decks synergize well with lower curve and low CMC interaction. There are also a handful of midrange decks popping up, like Yeaux's 16th place finish at the last quarterly event. It's here that I'd like to look first:
Yeaux's Grixis Arcanist, 16th Place, Legacy Format Playoff 6/23
Outside of Delver decks, this shell is exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to see Dreadhorde Arcanist in: a value-oriented Midrange deck that utilizes the card similarly to Dark Confidant, with a slew of cheap effects and removal. One thing that I’ve learned while playing with various Dreadhorde Arcanist shells is that spot removal is very important in order to clear the way for Dreadhorde Arcanist attacks.
Dreadhorde Arcanist shines in strategies that attack from multiple angles. When it “attack-casts,” it will most frequently flashback discard spells or cantrips. Flashing back discard spells is obviously powerful, as it often creates situations where a single Thoughtseize can become an often-better version of Hymn to Tourach, further burying your opponent from finding answers for the Dreadhorde Arcanist. However, flashing back cantrips is just as good, if not better than simple discard spells. The biggest thing to understand is that cantrips are the glue behind Legacy’s blue decks; especially the fair blue decks. These decks are often piles of removal/countermagic that have to line up against their opponents in order to win, and cantrips glue those disparate pieces together so that the blue deck can pick and choose what it needs in specific spots. Because of this, cantrips are of utmost importance to all blue decks, and flashing them back in a deck that has disparate pieces is quite potent.
In the above Grixis midrange shell, there’s a slew of discard, countermagic, removal, and threats that all somehow need to add up to defeating Legacy as a whole, and that would be normally quite difficult to do without some sort of “unfair” element to it, in my opinion. Hymn to Tourach used to be the “unfair” element that these shells had, but Dreadhorde Arcanist allows another angle of attack that can produce some very “unfair” and snowball-esque sequences while still providing pressure, something that those other shells lacked.
Using Arcanist in Delver Decks
While this sort of strategy is very much more in the ‘experimental phase,’ Delver decks have seen a rise in play in the past few weeks, and Dreadhorde Arcanist is the primary reason for that.
In Delver decks, Arcanist takes the above dichotomy of flashing back cantrips or disruption, and turns it up to 11 by also adding face damage to the mix. This takes full leverage of Arcanist’s ability to add flexibility to a deck, and impacts the clock when none of the other options would add much to your game plan. There are two primary “Delver” decks that utilize Dreadhorde Arcanist well: UR Delver and Grixis Delver.
Looking at UR Delver first:
Chad Harney's UR Delver, SCG Pittsburgh 2019
UR Delver focuses primarily on landing a “sticky’ threat, and damaging the opponent every turn, and Dreadhorde Arcanist compliments that plan very well by a) flashing back cantrips to find additional interactive elements, or b) flashing back Lightning Bolt -esque effects to close out the game more quickly. Each card in the arsenal of UR Delver can often be considered as “trying to do a Lightning Bolt ’s-worth of damage each turn” and Arcanist helps supplement that game plan.
UR Delver always had issues with combo decks because its interaction windows were very slim as well, since it can only truly interact with 2 out of the 4 “tenets of combo hate” that I’ve outlined before.
UR Delver has to have a fast clock and have ample countermagic, supplemented sometimes by the “hate permanent” tenant if sideboards are built with combo in mind. While Dreadhorde Arcanist can’t really fix that problem entirely, it does make the matchup against combo a bit better in that it acts as supplemental cantrips to find the actual cards that do matter. It is often slow in doing this, but it makes a deck that previously had very little chance against combo besides “the nut draw” be slightly more favorable.
Comparing UR Delver to other Delver decks, it also gains additional percentage points being a two color deck: mana is everything in Legacy and having a stack of basics to rely on in a Wasteland matchup is invaluable.
Another added dimension to this is that UR Delver suddenly has the ability to destroy creatures with more than 5 toughness, something it could not do efficiently before. People play copies of Dismember at times, but if you have a Lightning Bolt effect in hand, and Arcanist can attack this turn, you can destroy your opponent’s >5 toughness creature by casting the bolt effect on it, then flashing it back as Arcanist attacks. This by no means is an efficient answer to cheap threats like Gurmag Angler or Tarmogoyf, but previously UR Delver could only hope to stonewall such threats by landing a True-name Nemesis, so an additional way to deal with such threats is extremely welcome.
With Dreadhorde Arcanist, UR Delver’s main weakness is slightly alleviated, while it maintains a good matchup spread across the rest of Legacy, making it a potent choice at any Legacy event.
The deck that perhaps uses Dreadhorde Arcanist the best to attack from multiple angles, however is Grixis Delver:
Robert Wilson's Grixis Delver, SCGCon 2019
Grixis Delver, like the Grixis Arcanist list before, can utilize Dreadhorde Arcanist ’s ability to flashback both cantrips AND removal spells, but with the added aggressive angle of Delver of Secrets and Lightning Bolt. This deck attacks from multiple angles, and flexes its lategame power with Dreadhorde Arcanist. Previously, Grixis Delver had the best/most diverse threat suite and that still mostly holds true. However, it is no longer unparalleled in the delver mirror, as now all other Arcanist delver decks can more easily defeat Gurmag Angler, as was outlined in the previous breakdown on UR Delver.
This covers the far reaching ways in which Dreadhorde Arcanist can be used in fair strategies. Overall, Arcanist adds an additional angle of attack to each of these decks, and helps bridge the gap between some of their more disparate draws.
Using Arcanist in Unfair Decks
Dreadhorde Arcanist synergizes very well with certain powerful cards that would not be normally castable, such as the suspend cards Ancestral Vision, Restore Balance, and newcomer Crashing Footfalls. MTGO player Peter White (pow22) has been playing lots of brews with this shell:
This is...quite a decklist. While I normally don’t like discussing experimental builds of cards like this, there’s a LOT of decks in Legacy that have trouble beating 2 4/4s for a low mana cost, and this deck does that extremely well. Here, we see Dreadhorde Arcanist’s “hidden” mode, of flashing back 0 CMC spells that would otherwise be uncastable, and “cheat” on that mana cost. While this might seem like a “pile,” I certainly believe something like this shell could have legs going forward, as cheating on mana is extremely powerful in Legacy and this deck does that while also having a somewhat fair game plan that can go over the top of all other fair game plans.
One Simple Idea
Now, we’ve examined a fair bit of decklists that utilize Dreadhorde Arcanist that all use the card’s strengths differently.
- Flashing discard spells and removal
- Flashing back cantrips to further add consistency to disparate blue shells
- Flashing back burn spells in a more aggressive shell
- All of the above!
- Flashing back powerful cascade spells to cheat on mana
However, Dreadhorde Arcanist does one thing in each of these shells consistently, and the idea is quite simple: it adds consistency to each of these strategies, and allows each of these decks more options than they had before. It’s not an obvious all-star or enabler (except in the Rhino’s deck!), but it does a lot of small, subtle things that add just a bit more strength to each of these deck’s gameplans. It’s certainly a slow card, but the cost associated with it can be mitigated by proper deckbuilding in many cases.
Of the shells presented here, I personally vastly prefer UR Delver over the other options as I believe the clean manabase it provides, as well as how it leverages the more aggressive “Delver” draws make its proactive plan more threatening than the other decks in this piece. I’m a fan of decks that try not to pull themselves into too many directions, and I believe UR Delver’s game plan overall is simple to understand, and it executes it very well. Dreadhorde Arcanist helps shore up a lot of the weaknesses of the deck, and it was already quite strong.
Dreadhorde Arcanist made a bunch of matchups for each of these shells simply better, and, at least in the case of Delver decks, its inclusion made a lot of matchups a lot closer than before, and brought them back to the forefront of the Legacy metagame once again.
Thank you for reading, until next time!