The new Shadow Isles champion Maokai surprised many Runeterra fans with its original take on a ‘mill’ mechanic. His Level Up pay-off lets a player obliterate most of the opponent’s deck in a single moment. Will the mill-oriented ‘Toss’ archetype shake the meta once the new expansion hits?
Here’s our rating scale:
- 5.0: Broken card. (Hecarim before the nerf).
- 4.0: Meta staple. (Zed, Karma, Deny, Cithria the Bold).
- 3.5: Good in multiple archetypes. (Stand Alone, Get Excited, Will of Ionia).
- 3.0: Archetype staple. (Corina Veraza, Anivia).
- 2.5: Role-player in some decks. (The Ruination, Fae Bladetwirler)
- 2.0: Niche card. Underpowered card, or tech card or currently from an unfleshed archetype. (Ren Shadowblade, Parade Electrorig).
- 1.0: Never sees play (Unstable Voltician, Basilisk Rider).
MAOKAI – 2.5
Maokai costs 4 mana but he is statted like a 2-drop – so let’s quickly move past his underwhelming base values and focus on the ways in which he is supposed to compensate for the lack of board presence.
With the new Shadow Isles champion comes yet another fresh keyword of the Legends of Runeterra expansion – ‘Toss’. The rules’ description for it reads: “Whenever you Toss X, Obliterate X non-champion cards from the bottom of your deck.”
‘Obliterate’ is another ability-keyword that is already present in the core set (She Who Wanders, Corina Veraza). To ‘obliterate’ a card essentially means to completely remove it from the game, akin to an ‘exiling’ mechanic in Magic: The Gathering. An obliterated card doesn’t count as a discarded card and – if it is a unit – cannot be revived later in the game.
Toss introduces a ‘mill’ concept into LoR that wasn’t previously supported as an archetype. It has a long and quite gimmicky history in other card games such as Hearthstone, and, of course, MTG. The term ‘mill’ originated from a classic Magic card Millstone that was first printed in the ‘Antiquities’ set back in 1994. The idea of the mill deck is to run either your opponent or yourself out of cards – and so achieve an alternate win-condition through ‘decking’.
So, Toss is essentially a self-mill, but with an interesting twist – it deletes cards from the bottom of your deck, while traditional mill in CCG genre removes cards from the top of a player’s library.
Toss feels like a very smart implementation of self-mill in the way it respects the design space of mechanics that manipulate topdecks. There are some interactions with the top cards of your library that already exist in the core set (Avarosan Trapper, Ashe’s Crystal Arrow), and Toss makes sure they remain consistent and cannot be messed with. Moreover, it allows for more topdeck manipulation to be implemented in the future. For example, what ‘Scry’ mechanic does in MTG is that it lets the player look at the top card of their library and decide whether they want to put it back on top or bottom. With Toss working the way it does, such mechanics can be translated to LoR with no problem.
Now, back to Maokai – why would we even want to self-mill and expose ourselves to the danger of decking? Well, it all comes down to his level up pay-off – once we have Tossed/our units have died 25 times, Maokai obliterates the opponents’ deck, leaving only four non-champion cards in their library. The tables have turned – in just 4 rounds they are doomed to lose the game by drawing from an empty deck!
Well, that’s a lot to process! First, let’s be clear on the rules of this thing – Maokai’s level up requirements count both cards-tossing and units dying towards the same progress bar. If you can Toss 12 cards and trade away 13 units during the game, that would be exactly enough to level up the champion. So, in a sense, whenever you see a unit with Toss X on it, it effectively has Toss X+1 as the follower itself will eventually die and contribute to the Level Up. Also, needless to say that Maokai doesn’t have to be on the board for you to advance his quest.
The champion provides additional on-board presence by generating Sapling tokens – a maximum of one per round, triggering on the first time you play another unit. Saplings are 2/1 followers that have Ephemeral and Challenger – which is pretty damn good value! On the attacking turns they act as free Fleetfeather Trackers, and on the defensive turns they serve as the throw-away Ephemeral blockers. Keep in mind, when you have Maokai on the battlefield, your opponents are heavily pressured into open-attacking because Saplings significantly de-value their board development.
Additionally, every time Maokai generates a Sapling token, he also Tosses 2 cards. 25 ticks on the quest seem like an awful lot, but the math looks more optimistic upon closer inspection. With Maokai on the board, he first unit you play each round equals 4 points towards the level up (Toss 2 + Sapling dying + played unit itself dying at future point). With some additional input from other cards with Toss throughout the game and with abuse of Spider tokens/Ephemerals, Maokai can realistically level up in 4-5 rounds’ time if left unchecked.
It is important and healthy for the game that upgrading Maokai doesn’t mean the win is locked for you. There are still ways for the opponent to prepare and get by with the remaining cards he has in library and in hand. The key trick her is to keep shuffling champion cards into your obliterated deck with champion spells.
For example, if you’re playing against Maokai abuser as a Karma deck, you can set it up so that you would have Karma on the board and Karma’s Insight of Ages in hand by the time the bell tolls. This will help you refill the library and you can go infinitely, completely denying a mill win-con. There are other, more gimmicky ways to fill your deck as well – with the help of cards like Counterfeit Copies and Avarosan Trapper – but those scenarios hardly warrant the attention.
It is quite curious that leveled-up Maokai has a fail-safe for the cases where the mill plans have been denied. In his Level 2 form, the champion keeps generating Saplings – now without any requirements, just simply on round start trigger. Maokai also acquires a Regeneration keyword by then and all of a sudden becomes an extremely annoying on-board threat.
The biggest question with Maokai relates to his play patterns. Simply put, it goes like this – are we supposed to play him on curve? Should we aim to sacrifice tempo by playing a low-impact 1/4 unit and use him as a Toss/Saplings engine? Or are we better suited by delaying Maokai’s appearance until he can for sure obliterate opponent’s deck? How similar are his play patterns to those of Ezreal?
I would say, Maokai feels much more closer to Karma than to Ezreal gameplay-wise. Sure, what unites him with PnZ Champion is that his Level-Up is a wincon by itself. But Ezreal has almost no utility before late-game exodia, while Maokai does. Just like with Karma, as a control deck you’ll feel great playing Maokai slightly off-curve, having some means of protection ensured.
Don’t get me wrong, he is in no way is as strong as Karma in her current form, but the pattern should be similar – late-game bomb/mid-game threat if uncontested. What can push Maokai even more, is if we’ll get more value-genereating Toss interactions in the game. I’m talking about effects ‘Whenever you Toss, do X’ and such. Currently there’s no point in tossing outside of advancing Maokai’s quest, which limits his Level 1 utility to just Saplings.
Right now it seems that Maokai could find his place in an archetype akin to Spider Karma – something that looks to combine token spam for early/mid board presence with late-game inevitability. He wouldn’t be a 3-of in that deck, not until Karma survives patch notes. But he still can serve as a somewhat reliable win-con in control matchups.
If there’s going to be a viable all-in Maokai deck or not, solely depends on Toss support in the new set. Right now, the synergy is a bit scarce. However, what I do very much like about the design of mill in Legends of Runeterra is that it tries to mitigate the un-fun parts of such strategies.
Mill has always been a very consumptive strategy. It often happens so that when a game involves a successful milling, the player doing that has all of the fun, while the other has none. It is disheartening, especially for a newer player, to see his library being slowly drained.
Maokai gets around that by, first, setting a clear time-frame – mill happens only when level up happens, all in one instance. That makes it more of a distinct experience, an exciting in-game event for all the parties involved. Second, Maokai leaves interaction opportunities even after the Level Up.
Don’t know about you, but I’m very happy about Twisted Treant and his play patterns – even though he is unlikely to really take root in the meta.
SAP MAGIC – 1.0
This is not exactly the kind of Toss support I was hoping for. If you are building an all-in Maokai deck, aiming to stall the game with high health blockers, Sap Magic could pull the weight as a champion spell and provide some durability to your troops. As a maindeckable card though – is it enough consistent value to warrant a slot? It doesn’t heal your Nexus (Riot confirmed), so you need at least two damaged units on the board to feel good about casting it. The card doesn’t replace itself either– with additional ‘Draw 1’ clause and an increased 4 mana-cost Sap Magic would feel more lucrative.
THORNY TOAD – 2.0
This chonky boy shuts down hyper-aggressive strategies quite nicely. Imagine you’re playing Legion Saboteurs and Grenadiers and see this guy on the other side. However, when we go a bit higher up the curve into midrange territory, Thorny Toad becomes less and less scary. He doesn’t block Fearsomes, Elusives do not give a damn about him, Draven goes right through. There’s a reason why a 1/4 statline was never relevant in LoR so far, with the exception of Boomcrew Rookie. If only Thorny Toad had the ability to heal upon block declare… Would that be so insane?
DEATHBLOOM WANDERER – 2.5
Lifesteal is a premium keyword and, packed all nicely together with 3 attack value, it will likely become a solid role-player card in Maokai-inspired control archetype. I would look to support this one with buffs and so would seek an alliance with Freljord. Outside of Maokai deck, Deathbloom Wanderer becomes quite lost as Frenzied Skitterer is still a better midrange option, while Darkwater Scourge/Death Mark combo is a superior control package.
OVERGROWN SNAPVINE – 2.0
Now this is a weird one – both a hilarious card to think about and also very difficult to accurately evaluate. At first, it looks like a pure meme, but it can also turn out to be a huge bomb.
Surely, it is a 7 mana 4/3 follower that instantly trades down with every common removal spell known to man. Or is it? Imagine his interaction with Maokai in play. You slam Snapvine, it triggers Maokai – but instead of a Sapling, another Snapvine is summoned. Now it is two of these your opponent has to deal with, so no trading 1-for-1. And there was no window for him to react whatsoever!
If you’re able to catch your enemy at an opportune time an stick a Snapvine onto the board, it snowballs like crazy. Haunted Relic summons three 4/3 units, Cursed Keeper summons two of them, as does Crawling Sensation and Hapless Aristocrat. Targeted removal does nothing against the spooky plants, and the opponents has to mass-fumigate these abominations or fold.
As you can see, the ceiling on this card is disgusting, but it is also very difficult to pull off. Kalista and Maokai are the two champions who are able to set up for Overgrown Snapvine quite effectively. If their respective gameplans are ever to become a thing in the meta – well, then the Snapvine is to be feared!
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more spoiler discussion & ratings at RuneterraCCG.com!