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Speak Little, Do Much - Understanding Monastery Mentor

Speak Little, Do Much - Understanding Monastery Mentor
Written by:
  • Minhajul Hoq

📅 April 24, 2019

⏱️23 min read

Monastery Mentor has a history in Legacy as being one of the most powerful cards in cantrip-control strategies ever since it was printed in Fate Reforged. However, it was not immediately obvious that this card would see Legacy play, and many experts of the format immediately dismissed this creature because "it just dies to Lightning Bolt" initially. Even today, it's often misunderstood as simply a finisher for Legacy control decks, such as Miracles, while leveraging this card to its fullest depth is even now not fully explored.

In this article, I'm going to be diving into various decklists, each of which leverage Monastery Mentor a bit differently. Then, I'll be analyzing what it takes to utilize Monastery Mentor to its fullest and why it's often still very misunderstood.

History of Monastery Mentor in Miracles - Before the Banning of Sensei's Divining Top

First, we're going to examine the card during its inception in Legacy, during the era of Sensei's Divining Top and the Dig Through Time era that followed therafter. Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise both had a massive impact on Legacy, and things were still recovering from the banning of the latter when Monastery Mentor entered the scene and people began to experiment with it.

Mentor first started out as a sideboard card for Legacy Miracles. The main rationale at the time was that it died often in game 1's, as Miracles did not naturally have many creatures that traded unfavorably with removal spells at the time (often just Snapcaster Mages, Vendilion Cliques, and Entreat the Angels tokens). People did not want to play a creature that was essentially a lightning rod for removal in game ones.

Anuraag Das's Miracles, SCG Worcester 2015

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
4 Snapcaster Mage 4 Brainstorm 1 Arid Mesa 1 Cavern of Souls
4 Ponder 4 Flooded Strand 2 Flusterstorm
1 Pyroblast 3 Island 1 Pyroblast
1 Red Elemental Blast 1 Plains 1 Red Elemental Blast
4 Swords to Plowshares 4 Scalding Tarn 2 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Counterspell 4 Tundra 1 Rest in Peace
1 Entreat the Angels 3 Volcanic Island 2 Wear // Tear
4 Force of Will 2 Monastery Mentor
4 Terminus 1 Sulfur Elemental
1 Dig Through Time 2 Vendilion Clique
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Counterbalance
4 Sensei's Divining Top

The thing to highlight here is that Miracles, even now, often boards out some number of clunky elements and transforms into a very lean, low to the ground deck in most post board situations. Some cards such as Force of Will, Terminus, Counterbalance, or Back to Basics, etc all find themselves getting trimmed post board for more relevant, and often more efficient answers. Cards like Monastery Mentor do exceptionally well when the average spell cmc of your deck is relatively low.

This, of course, is in addition to the level 0 thought of "my opponent will board out removal against my low creature count control deck". Thus, bringing in Monastery Mentor in those cases allows you to maximize the usage of the card.

Soon afterwards, people began to take this card to the limit, and leveraged how broken it is with spells. Claudio Bonanni takes 4 Mentors into GP Lille, and comes out the victory with this decklist, a precursor to how Mentor is utilized today in many ways:

Claudio Bonnani's Mentor Miracles, GP Lille 2015

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
2 Snapcaster Mage 4 Brainstorm 2 Arid Mesa 1 Engineered Explosives
4 Monastery Mentor 4 Ponder 4 Flooded Strand 2 Flusterstorm
2 Pyroblast 4 Island 1 Red Elemental Blast
3 Daze 1 Plains 1 Surgical Extraction
3 Swords to Plowshares 3 Scalding Tarn 2 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Counterspell 3 Tundra 1 Disenchant
4 Force of Will 3 Volcanic Island 1 Pyroclasm
3 Terminus 1 Blood Moon
2 Dig Through Time 1 Rest in Peace
4 Counterbalance 2 Vendilion Clique
4 Sensei's Divining Top 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Wear // Tear

This is an exceptionally different decklist compared to the previous ones in that it contained 4 copies of Monastery Mentor in the main deck, and a slew of decisions that accented that, such as Daze. It's also the first to truly embrace a combo I have not yet mentioned: Sensei's Divining Top and Monastery Mentor . There are numerous tricks with Top, but this one truly pushed the power level of the card (and ultimately put the nail in the coffin of the card, in my opinion). If you have a Monastery Mentor in play, as well as a Sensei's Divining Top, on your upkeep, you can use the draw ability of Top to draw a card, then on your draw step, you redraw Sensei's Divining Top. With Mentor in play, you can redeploy the Top to generate a 1/1 monk with Prowess.

Now this might not seem like a big deal, but it guarantees value off of your Monastery Mentor every single turn and that is extremely powerful. With 4 copies of each, you now have a midgame engine that could play over the top of all sorts of strategies, invalidating whatever permanents your opponents had access to on the table.

In the above match, Claudio pulls ahead due to the sheer power of Monastery Mentor in an otherwise difficult board state, and his decklist leverages the power of the card extremely well, with copies of Daze to supplement that plan even further.

Now let's fast forward a few years; Dig Through Time has been banned, but Miracles continues to rise as various innovations (such as Predict) make their way into decklists as methods of playing over the top of midrange blue mirrors. Monastery Mentor began to finally see more respect as a main deck option, simply due to the power of it in conjunction with Sensei's Divining Top as highlighted before. We see various decklists like Wilson Hunter's adapted Mentor Miracles list and they feature Mentor in very high numbers:

Wilson Hunter's Mentor Miracles, GP Columbus 2016

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
3 Snapcaster Mage 4 Brainstorm 1 Arid Mesa 1 Mountain
4 Monastery Mentor 4 Ponder 4 Flooded Strand 2 Flusterstorm
1 Preordain 4 Island 4 Pyroblast
2 Predict 2 Plains 1 Surgical Extraction
4 Swords to Plowshares 4 Scalding Tarn 1 Spell Pierce
1 Counterspell 2 Tundra 2 Blood Moon
4 Force of Will 2 Volcanic Island 1 Entreat the Angels
3 Terminus 1 Vendilion Clique
2 Engineered Explosives 2 Wear // Tear
4 Counterbalance
4 Sensei's Divining Top

This list is very similar to Claudio's decklist, in that it leverages the mid-game power of Monastery Mentor very heavily, but adapted a bit with the new technology of Predict as the main source of card advantage to create pocket-sized subgames that allow you to pull ahead.

During this period, Miracles was not the only deck to leverage Monastery Mentor however. Several other archetypes were experimenting with the card, though most centered around the combination of Gitaxian Probe and Cabal Therapy.

Egget's Esper Mentor, Jan 2016

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
4 Deathrite Shaman 4 Brainstorm 4 Flooded Strand 1 Flusterstorm
2 Snapcaster Mage 3 Cabal Therapy 2 Island 1 Pithing Needle
4 Monastery Mentor 3 Gitaxian Probe 1 Karakas 2 Surgical Extraction
1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang 4 Ponder 2 Marsh Flats 3 Abrupt Decay
2 Spell Pierce 1 Plains 2 Containment Priest
4 Swords to Plowshares 4 Polluted Delta 1 Null Rod
1 Council's Judgment 1 Scrubland 1 Zealous Persecution
2 Painful Truths 1 Swamp 1 Council's Judgment
4 Force of Will 1 Tropical Island 1 Vendilion Clique
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor 2 Tundra 1 Notion Thief
1 Underground Sea 1 Supreme Verdict

Now this sort of list leverages Mentor very differently, and tries to accent how good Monastery Mentor is with 'simply playing Magic' and interacting with your opponent. It creates many interaction points and allows you to mostly ignore your opponents' 1-for-1 removal. Simply trading of cards will allow Monastery Mentor to pull you ahead naturally. It's more interactive than Miracles is naturally, but is somewhat more clunky than Miracles itself.

Monastery Mentor saw a lot of play during this time in Legacy, but soon afterwards the landscape of the format changed completely. Sensei's Divining Top was banned and this shakeup would change the format quite a bit. Mentor would still be present however, but its use became quite different...

History of Monastery Mentor in Miracles - After the Banning of Sensei's Divining Top

After the banning of Top, Legacy changed completely and Mentor's partner in crime was no longer legal. Miracles eventually rose from the ashes, and with it, so did Monastery Mentor, though its usage is quite different. Post-Ban Miracles has transitioned between many different decklists and even archetypes, but no consensus stock list has truly been arrived at. This is primarily due to the fact that Legacy is still in flux, changing and adapting much like newer Magic formats do. In these situations, a control deck such as Miracles will have to bob and weave in order to adapt what it's doing, and how it's leveraging its capabilities. This includes how it utilizes Monastery Mentor, if at all.

Miracles decklists put themselves on a spectrum, anywhere from Control deck to Prison deck to Midrange deck, and each version utilizes Monastery Mentor very differently.

The Control versions of Miracles will often not play Mentor main, relegating it to the sideboard if they're playing the card at all. Here's an example decklist:

Gerard Fabiano's Miracles, GP Niagara 2019

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
3 Snapcaster Mage 4 Brainstorm 1 Arid Mesa 1 Engineered Explosives
2 Vendilion Clique 4 Ponder 4 Flooded Strand 1 Hydroblast
3 Spell Pierce 6 Island 3 Surgical Extraction
4 Swords to Plowshares 2 Misty Rainforest 1 Disenchant
4 Accumulated Knowledge 2 Plains 3 Meddling Mage
1 Counterspell 2 Polluted Delta 2 Monastery Mentor
1 Council's Judgment 3 Tundra 1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
1 Supreme Verdict 1 Supreme Verdict
4 Force of Will 1 Terminus
2 Terminus 1 Emrakul, the Promised End
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

The Prison versions of the deck primarily lean on Back to Basics, Counterbalance, and Monastery Mentor to create a trifecta of difficult permanents, each of which covers a different facet of Legacy. My article on UW Miracles covers more concepts about the Prison versions of the archetype, and the decklist for such a strategy below:

Minhajul Hoq's Miracles, SCG Cincinatti 2019

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
2 Monastery Mentor 2 Council's Judgment 4 Scalding Tarn 1 Monastery Mentor
3 Snapcaster Mage 3 Terminus 1 Arid Mesa 1 Supreme Verdict
2 Preordain 4 Flooded Strand 2 Flusterstorm
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor 6 Island 2 Surgical Extraction
2 Spell Pierce 2 Plains 1 Celestial Purge
4 Ponder 2 Tundra 2 Vendilion Clique
2 Counterbalance 1 Counterbalance
4 Accumulated Knowledge 1 Spell Snare
4 Brainstorm 2 Disenchant
2 Back to Basics 1 Counterspell
4 Force of Will 1 Karakas
4 Swords to Plowshares
The Midrange iterations of Miracles leverage Monastery Mentor as their primary engine, and I think this version of Miracles is perhaps the most unexplored in terms of how far it can be taken to utilize Mentor. I've spoken to Wilson Hunter, who worked on Mentor strategies both pre and post Top ban, and he's got a decklist that I see a lot of potential in:

Wilson Hunter's Mentor Miracles, 2019

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
2 Snapcaster Mage 4 Brainstorm 1 Arid Mesa 1 Engineered Explosives
4 Monastery Mentor 4 Ponder 4 Flooded Strand 1 Flusterstorm
4 Preordain 4 Island 3 Pyroblast
4 Swords to Plowshares 4 Scalding Tarn 3 Surgical Extraction
4 Accumulated Knowledge 2 Plains 1 Containment Priest
2 Counterspell 2 Tundra 2 Disenchant
1 Council's Judgment 2 Volcanic Island 2 Back to Basics
1 Supreme Verdict 1 Vendilion Clique
4 Force of Will 1 Terminus
3 Terminus
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Spell Pierce
1 Flusterstorm

This decklist is pretty different from every other decklist I've referenced in this article, from all eras of Legacy, and there's quite a bit to discuss, but I think it might be the decklist that does the best job of highlighting the power of Monastery Mentor.

This list distills the power of Monastery Mentor into three basic concepts, which can be broken down as follows:

  • Cantripping with Monastery Mentor
  • Stabilizing with Monastery Mentor
  • Winning with Monastery Mentor

Cantripping with Monastery Mentor

The first thing that Monastery Mentor asks of you is planning your cantrip sequences with Mentor in mind. The first of these involves the lack of Counterbalance in this decklist.

Counterbalance in Miracles has always been a point of contention, with many folks like Jim Davis going on record in saying they dislike Counterbalance without Top to pair with it, citing it has high variance and requires too much in the way of resources in order to leverage correctly. However, Counterbalance still sees play because it becomes an important game plan within the spectrum of Miracles iterations. In the Control deck extreme, Counterbalance can serve as one-sided Chalice of the Void to help break apart polarity in blue mirrors and eke out advantages. In the Prison deck extreme, it's used similarly as a lock piece that has relevancy in blue mirrors as well as against combo decks, and is part of the trifecta of prison elements that the deck looks to leverage.

In this decklist, however, you'll notice that there's no Counterbalances at all. This is absolutely intentional. The reason behind it is that this decklist looks at each and every slot, and has full control on how it will utilize its cards. In game 1, it operates along an axis that leverages Monastery Mentor at its fullest, and all resources are spent doing two things: stabilizing, and Mentoring.

This includes how it utilizes its cantrips. Counterbalance would normally appear here in the slots taken up by Counterspell or Flusterstorm, but it's inferior to both of those cards because this decklist is attempting to have complete control over how it utilizes its cards.

What this means is that the variance of Counterbalance rears its ugly head in a decklist like this because it asks the cantrips to be used in a way this deck does not want to use its cantrips.

It cannot afford to use its cantrips to generate value out of Counterbalance as the cantrips are necessary to either stabilize the game or generate value out of the 4 Monastery Mentors. Gone are the days of Sensei's Divining Top, where we would use Top to leverage our selection process and use the supplementary cantrips in our deck more frivolously. Thus, we need to make careful use of our cantrips and Counterbalance simply asks too much out of them over the course of a game of Magic.

This is also the reason why, unlike most Miracles lists you see these days, we are running the full 12 cantrip slots, and the supplemental cantrip of choice is the full 4 Preordain over any copies of Portent. This is due to the desire to chain together spells properly and create decision points early and often, through every stage of the game. Preordain allows you to do that since you get the card draw immediately rather than being delayed by half a turn. Due to the 4 Mentors, Preordain also shines more compared to Portent because the setup of Terminus is less integral to stabilizing the board (as we'll discuss in the next section).

Each card in this list has a textbox that simply creates value on its own, and its sources of card advantage are also stand-alone, without needing to jump through hoops. Thus, its cantrips allow the optimal and maximum usage out of Monastery Mentor, and are well prepared to leverage 4 copies of the card.

Stabilizing with Monastery Mentor

I believe that most people will look at this list and assume that it is simply an "aggressive" Miracles shell, when, in truth, it simply uses Mentor to manage multiple things at once. Chief among these is one of the tenets of a control deck: stabilization. Monastery Mentor is among the most powerful stabilization tools in a match of Magic, because it can move from gumming up a board to overpowering the board in an extremely short time-span. Wilson Hunter likes to use the term 'subgame' in relation to what Monastery Mentor does to a game, in that it forces your opponent into making decisions that they would otherwise not wish to make.

You do not necessarily have to cast a Monastery Mentor on turn 3 just because you believe your decklist has 4 of them and you can afford to expend them early and often; that is simply one of the avenues afforded to you, should you choose to take it. What 4 Mentors mean is not "aggression" but rather, "decisions." Affording you more options in a game of Magic is powerful, and it is up to you on what to do with those decision points. Early and often decision points presented to the opponent is something most Miracles decks can't truly accomplish, and Mentor, unlike the other parts of the "prison trifecta" can't be handled or ignored by subsets of matchups. The card is threatening against the vast majority of the field and that is why you see it being favored over the other options in this list.

In terms of stabilizing, Mentor just creates awkward points that places the game on a razor's edge. Imagine yourself facing down a single True-Name Nemesis and you deploy a Mentor with a pierce and an additional spell up. Even though the True-Name Nemesis will deal uncontested damage over the course of the game, Mentor will be able to muscle past it eventually for way more than lethal in most situations. It might even force your opponent not to attack into you, in an attempt to hold the Mentor back, which allows you to either continue accruing value in the form of monk tokens.

Monastery Mentor is also a combo with Terminus. Yes, you read that correctly. To clarify, it is a nonbo in the sense that it's a creature that creates a singular wide board state, and Terminusing your own board is most definitely a non-bo and feels pretty bad, but consider the following:

Harkening back to the previous example, it's your Mentor against your opponent's True-Name Nemesis. In an effort to break the parity and get damage in past your Mentor, they decide to overcommit and deploy a Delver of Secrets and a Gurmag Angler, hoping to overload your cantrip evaluation and muscle past the Mentor for those last few points of damage. This would normally not be a good idea, as you are still a Terminus deck.

Now, you get to take that threat of the wide board you presented with Mentor, use your cantrips, and setup a Terminus to reset the board back to parity, perhaps even with a backup Monastery Mentor ready to deploy since you're playing 4 of them.

This is a perfect example of how a subgame dictated by Monastery Mentor puts your opponent between a rock and a hard place:

  • They have to either kill the Mentor before it gets out of hand (often much more difficult to do that it would seem).
  • be on the defensive and allow you to eventually accrue value and win anyway.
  • play into another game plan you have available to you: Terminus plus redeploy.

Four copies of Monastery Mentor does not necessitate aggression, but instead gives you options, and options in the hands of savvy player are dangerous indeed.

Winning with Monastery Mentor

This list still plays the general Miracles game plan, and that game plan eventually involves winning. To do this, it harkens back to some of pre-Top ban usage of Monastery Mentor, but instead of the guaranteed value via Top, we generate value by the sheer number of cheap spells and card advantage elements that the Miracles shell contains.

With the inclusion of Accumulated Knowledge, a source of card advantage that we can balance our sequencing around (unlike Predict), this list leverages the sheer amount of cards and interaction points to pull ahead of the opponent. You'll often times find yourself ahead of cards from your opponent because of the inherent number of 2-for-1 situations that Monastery Mentor creates across the course of the game. Once the game has gotten to this point, your 3rd and 4th Accumulated Knowledges are easy to find and deploy, and winning from that position is easy.

However, 4 copies of Monastery Mentor also allow you to create more "answer or lose" situations. Sometimes that turn 3/turn 4 Monastery Mentor you deployed with countermagic backup will simply allow you to win the game unanswered one to two turns later. Removal in Legacy does not often cleanly line up against Mentor, especially compared to most other formats, and the card goes unanswered or contorts your opponent's mana, thus pulling you ahead regardless. Again, options of creating "answer this now, or lose" as well as "or not, I'll find another" is a very powerful dynamic, and a savvy player will be able to leverage this ability extremely well.

Now, you might be thinking "well of this sounds great, so why doesn't everyone just play this?" . A list like this is not without its cons! Firstly, there's a psychological/preference element to it. Many people see Miracles as a control deck, and Monastery Mentor as an aggressive card, so they turn their nose up at the thought of playing so many "cards that just win the game." I believe this evaluation is somewhat short-sighted, and people vastly underestimate the ability to pivot between multiple roles in a specific game, and Mentor Miracles can pivot and close a game out exceptionally quickly, while still maintaining and creating multiple interaction points throughout a match. However, the card is still 3/4 mana worth of investment that may not line up well against whatever our opponents are doing.

This is Legacy, after all, where Dark Ritual, Show and Tell, and Griselbrand exist and those strategies don't really feel combated by a lowly 3 mana 2/2. That's where the rest of your strategy comes in, and that's why the spectrum of Miracles decks exists in the first place. I will say, however, that the glut of countermagic in this list compared to most Miracles lists will often create windows to deploy your Mentor and ride it to victory. All you really need is a single turn of respite.

Four copies of the card can absolutely be clunky, and most people choose to supplement existing interactive elements such as Counterbalance and Back to Basics with Monastery Mentor instead, which is absolutely a valid strategy. Without main deck access to those other cards, you have less obvious ways of interacting/beating certain combo decks and decks like Lands, Eldrazi, and so on as you lack sledgehammers specifically for those matchups, but if you leverage Mentor plus your suite of options correctly, you should still stand a figthing chance.

Monastery Mentor is not a swiss army knife that beats everything, and this decklist simply serves to deliver the full potential of the card, but it does create a dynamic that forces you to rely on a specific game plan or axis of interaction, more so than most other Miracles decks. This cuts off your ability to be flexible and change what you're cantripping for/looking for in a single game and creates a one-dimensional deck.

However, I believe many of the best strategies within Legacy are decks that have a single, cognizant game plan and exist to propel the game state based on that game plan. Thus, I believe the one-dimensional game plan of this Miracles list is a feature, not a bug, and it can morph its game plan into whatever it needs based on a matchup. That's what sideboarding is for!

Mentor itself might be one-dimensional compared to having access to CB/B2B, or more countermagic, but you still have the ability to play a "Blue Jund" style of list that allows you to find what you need to stabilize a game. Whether it is countermagic, removal, or Mentor, your inherent versatility allows you to pick and choose what you need at any given moment. You're still a Miracles deck, and you're a pile of interaction, card selection, and sledgehammers. Your selection allows you to find what you need, and instead of picking and choosing your hammers, you have a single, very specific hammer.

I've now spoken at length about Monastery Mentor in this article, and it's fairly clear that I have an affinity to the card. It would be ignorant to not point out that I am very biased in favor of the card: it's won many matches for me, and I love the feeling of accruing value from it over the course of a game of Magic. I am still learning about the nuances of the card, and it was just last week that I fully understood the implications of Wilson's decklist and how it was built (the value generation concept, in particular). I've been wanting to write about the card for many years. I think Monastery Mentor is one of the coolest tools added to Legacy's arsenal since I've started playing the format, and there are numerous other decks and archetypes that dip their toes into the card for effects they would otherwise not have access to. I find strategies like this to be truly incredible:

Nicklas Krull's Esper Mentor, MKM Bologna 2019

Creatures Spells Lands Sideboard
3 Snapcaster Mage 4 Brainstorm 3 Flooded Strand 1 Plains
3 Monastery Mentor 4 Ponder 1 Island 1 Flusterstorm
3 Baleful Strix 2 Preordain 3 Marsh Flats 1 Hydroblast
4 Swords to Plowshares 4 Polluted Delta 1 Meekstone
1 Inquisition of Kozilek 2 Scrubland 1 Pithing Needle
4 Hymn to Tourach 1 Swamp 2 Surgical Extraction
2 Thoughtseize 3 Tundra 2 Disenchant
1 Diabolic Edict 3 Underground Sea 1 Tsabo's Web
4 Force of Will 1 Umezawa's Jitte
1 Vindicate 2 Zealous Persecution
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor 1 Unmoored Ego
1 Liliana, the Last Hope 1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
2 Search for Azcanta

Fairly different from Miracles, this decklist utilizes the synergies between Mentor and depleting your opponent of resources and interactive elements against Monastery Mentor rather than accruing fuel on your own. Similar to the pre-Top ban version of Esper Mentor, this list attacks your opponent from multiple angles and utilizes Mentor to close the door quickly after depleting the opponent of those resources that interact with the card. Powerful in its own right, I'm sure we haven't seen the final form of this strategy, and it might be something I tinker with in the future.

I'd like to leave you all with an example of the concepts that I've outlined in this article: A few weeks ago, Phil Gallagher (of Thraben University) and Wilson Hunter copiloted through a League with an older version of the decklist I've highlighted here, and not only is it some of the best Magic I've seen played in a long time, but it also highlights almost all of the concepts I've outlined within this article in how Monastery Mentor's true potential can be utilized.

Thank you very much for reading this entirely too long rant about the ins and outs of Monastery Mentor. Though I did not adhere to the aforementioned card's flavor text, I believe my understanding of the card deepened quite a bit in writing and planning for this piece. I hope that it helps do the same for at least some of the people reading it. Thanks very much for reading, until next time!

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