This column has served two purposes in its short history: theoretical musings on the game of Magic, and rapturous devotion to black mana. This week will be more of the latter. Specifically, the most quintessential ability in black’s portion of the color pie: the tutor.

Vampiric Tutor has served two purposes in its long history. For high level players, it would find the other half of their combo (most notably in Trix) or as a facsimile of niche cards in a toolbox deck (notably in Jakub Slemr’s 1999 World Champs deck, which used the Tutor as both a tool to find Yawgmoth’s Will and a post-Will exploitation tactic). Everyone else has been using Vampiric Tutor (and Demonic Tutor before it) to find generically good cards since the dawn of Magic.

I remember my own awakening to the tutelage: Infernal Tutor, back in 2006. “If one card is good, shouldn’t I want two copies of that good card?” That was my thinking—true enough, but you don’t need a middleman to find the good card. Never use bad cards to make good cards better. Speaking of tutors, that is a harsh lesson that we all have to learn at some point.

But now we have the closest analogue to Vampiric Tutor that we’ve seen since 1997: Core Set 2020’s Scheming Symmetry.

“Search, then shuffle” tutors have been supplanted recently by “look at the top X cards of your library” tutors and Wish-style tutors like Mastermind’s Acquisition and Karn, the Great Creator. The idea is to reduce shuffling—a noble pursuit—but those alternatives have their own drawbacks, as anyone who’s whiffed on a Collected Company or had to select a basic land off Ancient Stirrings can tell you.

Scheming Symmetry brings back the old school tutor model, but with a serious drawback in competitive games. (It also creates an exceptionally fun and flexible minigame in multiplayer matches.) There are ways to break the symmetry, of course. Ashiok, Dream Render knocks the card off the top of their library, for example; but your opponent getting first crack at their tutor makes this way closer to Maralen of the Mornsong than Vampiric Tutor. Not exactly the most promising place to be.

A more optimistic view of Scheming Symmetry might compare it to Day’s Undoing—not great in a vacuum, but potentially great in the right deck, a la Jace’s Sanctum Mill or Narset/Day combo. Both of those use Day’s Undoing to great effect by playing a powerful, but narrow, card in a shell that plays reasonable cards to back it up.

So what makes Scheming Symmetry worth running over simple card draw? How are we exploiting it in Standard? To answer that, we’ll have to return to a Trix-style concept: a true, honest-to-Bontu combo deck. There are several combos possible in Standard right now, most of which require three or more cards to function:

  1. Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle + Chamber Sentry + Salvager of Ruin + win condition (link)
  2. Flood of Tears + Omniscience + Cards (link)
  3. Nexus of Fate + Scheming Symmetry + Mission Briefing (semi-infinite)
  4. Ral, Storm Conduit + Naru Meha, Master Wizard + Finale of Devastation (searching out Naru, copying FoD)
  5. Ral, Storm Conduit + any spell + Expansion // Explosion times two.

These aren’t independently powerful combos—Trix was so dominant because one half of the combo gave you a 20-life buffer to find the other half. But I think the Ral combo has potential, as it only requires two dedicated slots in the deck. Once you have Ral on the board and two Expansions in hand, any spell—either yours or your opponent’s—will let you go off.

Both Ral and E//E are reasonable cards, if you squint. We can run one Ral, with one in the sideboard, and two copies of Expansion // Explosion to find with the Symmetry. Back that up with a Standard Grixis Control shell. It looks something like this:

Ral, Storm Combo-it

Creatures (10)
Dreadhorde Arcanist
Thief of Sanity
Hostage Taker
God-Eternal Kefnet

Spells (25)
Ral, Storm Conduit
Search for Azcanta
Scheming Symmetry
Mastermind's Acquisition
Thought Erasure
Primal Amulet
Enter the God-Eternals
Expansion // Explosion
Lands (25)
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Sulfur Falls
Dragonskull Summit
Temple of Epiphany

Running Scheming Symmetry allows us to dedicate the bulk of our deck to an actual strategy, rather than redundant copies of our combo. It plays like a standard Grixis Control deck. Thief of Sanity allows you to lock them out of taking the bait on Scheming Symmetry—or steal whatever they choose to find.

There’s also a toolbox component to the deck—Enter the God-Eternals, Primal Amulet, etc.—which allows you to find what you need, rather than what you want. Unlike Trix, this isn’t about comboing out as soon as possible, but with as much stability as possible. The Mastermind’s Acquisition is to find a sideboarded Ral or a useful tool. Dreadhorde Arcanist allows you to recast Symmetry or Disfigure or Opt for value.

If we want to go in a different direction, I think a Teshar shell is as viable as a Ral deck. Teshar Combo can win off of Diligent Excavator, which is helped out by Ashiok as both a Scheming Symmetry breaker and back-up mill. Turn two Excavator into turn three Ashiok means six cards off the top. That’s a good start, but the Teshar loop allows you to mill them for their entire deck.

An Esper combo deck also, of course, gives you access to Teferi, allowing you to break the drawback of Scheming Symmetry by casting in on your opponent’s end of turn and comboing off on your turn. A sample decklist—which is very much indebted to Matt Nass’s work on the archetype and Tobi Henke’s superb update to the deck—would look something like this:

Teshar Combo

Creatures (20)
Chamber Sentry
Diligent Excavator
Salvager of Ruin
Sai, Master Thopterist
Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle
Spark Double

Spells (15)
Mox Amber
Scheming Symmetry
Teferi, Time Raveler
Ashiok, Dream Render
Lands (25)
Hallowed Fountain
Watery Grave
Glacial Fortress
Isolated Chapel
Drowned Catacomb
Temple of Silence

Perhaps the best/most ridiculous use for Scheming Symmetry is stacking Ghalta, Primal Hunger on the top of your deck with Twilight Prophet on board, but that’s a topic for another article. All in all, I expect Scheming Symmetry to be closer to Infernal Tutor than Vampiric Tutor—it may be too clunky and too symmetrical to define a new archetype or get incorporated into an old one.

Nonetheless, it’s clearly powerful, and creates a new minigame. Does your opponent, assuming you’re going to mill them, search out a useless card? Or do they choose an underpowered threat that has value in the graveyard? Do they gamble that you don’t have the Ashiok? As we’ve talked about before, any strategy that gives your opponent a chance to make the wrong choice is a strategy worth pursuing, so long as it furthers your own.

That’s what Scheming Symmetry offers—power with significant risk—and that’s why it’s the card from Core Set 2020 that I’m most intrigued by. Cheap tutors have too much of a legacy of playability for it not to show up somewhere while it’s legal, and I expect it to see periodic play in decks that put their thumbs on the scales. “Looks fair” is not the same thing as “is fair,” after all. These decks teach opponents that harsh lesson—basically, you’re roleplaying as a Cruel Tutor yourself.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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