Planar Chaos: Unraveling Mind Review (Part 1 of 2)
In Magic: the Gathering, it is occasionally fashionable to talk about how Wizards might be ‘running out of ideas,’ with the thought that innovation and creativity is a somewhat finite resource that is in danger of becoming expended. On the other hand, it can be sometimes surprising to discover just how little developed many mechanics have been over the course of the game’s history. Case in point- today’s deck was entirely build upon a foundation of only ten cards.
2002′s Torment- the middle set of Odyssey block- ais perhaps notable for being the only set to ever have been released that has a lopsided card distribution strongly favouring a single colour: Black. It also served as the origin of the madness mechanic, created by R&D member Mike Elliot. As he tells it, he was playing Magic one day when his girlfriend distracted him and a card slipped from his hand onto the table and he had a eureka! moment. Or he could have just been brainstorming, he’s not entirely clear on the matter. But regardless of its origin, it went through design and development and made its big, splashy debut in Torment.
It’s a credit to the impact of keyworded mechanics that we tend to find them quite memorable despite their relative scarcity. Consider the following: there are over 12,000 individual Magic cards that have been printed to date. How many of them have, say, living weapon?
More to the point, by the time Time Spiral rolled around, there were precisely ten cards that used the madness mechanic: two each per colour, one common and the other uncommon. To put that into visual perspective, here is the sum total of madness in Magic prior to February of 2007.
So when Time Spiral block went about taking the mechanics of the game’s history down from the shelf, giving them a good dusting, and breathing new life into them, the result was that the number of cards with madness more than doubled. Although that was still a tiny amount relative to the game’s card pool, it was certainly more than enough to build a workable deck around. That brings us to today’s feature, Unraveling Mind.
Into the Mouth of…
Like many such decks, Unraveling Mind is built like an engine. One the one hand, you have discard-enablers, ways to take advantage of the madness mechanic. Madness doesn’t care why you’re discarding a card- you could even go up to eight cards in hand and trigger it when you discard down to seven. All it cares about is the act of discarding a card, and since you can’t rely upon your opponent playing a discard deck you’ll have to come to the table with some outlets of your own. Once these are in place, your deck shifts gears into overdrive, being able to play madness cards- at instant speed (even creatures)- for a steep discount. That puts this deck in the mid-to-late-game optimisation class, though mechanically you can start playing madness cards as early as turn two- though, for best results, you’ll want to wait at least a turn. Some of your cheaper madness effects are on your removal, which will want to have juicier targets than those you’ll find your opponent playing in the early game.
Here’s Unraveling Mind’s scorecard.
To set the table, we’ll first want to look at the discard outlets you have available, as these will be the power source for your deck’s engine. Although you can certainly play your madness cards without going through them, you’ll find it to be fairly slow going. In order to get the jump on your opponent, you’ll need to be paying bargain-basement costs for a lot of your cards, to get the maximum output each turn. The idea is that you’ll be able to gain board advantage through earlier deployment of resources, as well as maximal use of cards. Remember that despite its negative conntations, discard doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Consider the Spellshaper creatures from Mercadian Masques block. For a small transaction fee, these creatures would turn a card in hand into a spell-like effect, the perfect use for later-game land or suboptimal draws. Although generally that discarding of a card was considered a cost, when discarding something is your goal then it’s all-upside. We saw this with the Greenseekers in Rituals of Rebirth, who let you tutor up a land and throw a reanimation target into the graveyard at the same time. We’ll see that same interplay at work here.
We’ll begin our look at the discard outlets with the lowly Mindlash Sliver. The only Sliver in the deck, it’s not here for its ability to absorb the powers of its mates, for as the sole representative of its type it’s a lonely Sliver indeed. This is the perfect example of all-upside discard, and can be a nasty little piece of business too. The Mindlash Sliver, you see, forces both you and your opponent to discard a card. For more expensive madness targets, like the Gorgon Recluse, this turns the Sliver into a virtual Dark Ritual when you look at your mana savings, and disrupting your opponent’s hand is an added bonus. This little fellow is so central to your deck’s theme that you’re given a full playset of him. You also have a singleton Ridged Kusite, today’s first Spellshaper. Despite charting high on Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar’s “cards to drop” list for the deck (“the art is gross”), beggars can’t be choosers and the Kusite does the job. (As an aside, if you want to see just how deep Wizards went with inside references on cards for this block, check this out.)
Next up we have a trio of Undertakers. These Spellshapers provide a very useful service, essentially turning every card in your hand into a potential Disentomb. Bear in mind that useful as this is, it is only as reliable as your ability to have targets in your graveyard. Unlike the Greenseeker, which could be played anytime, you might find yourself unable to take advantage of her for wont of recursion targets. Very useful, but situationally reliable.
Next up is the Trespasser il-Vec, a Time Spiral card that’s a callback to the story and mechanics of Tempest block. This fellow, an aggressive-minded 3/1 body- gains shadow whenever you discard a card. The ability to embrace shadow is useful for two reasons. First, it gives you a high-power creature that is essentially unblockable. Second, should you run into an opponent playing with the pesky shadow creatures (which had a certain renaissance in Time Spiral block), you have a way to answer almost any of them (the Soltari Monk, alas, will still elude you). Bearing in mind that you can activate the Trespasser’s ability multiple times in a turn should the need arise, and you have yourself a fairly reliable workhorse that can home in on your opponent’s life total.
Finally at the top of the creature cirve we find a pair of Phantasmagorians lying in wait. We last saw these used to good effect in Rituals of Rebirth, and in some ways they are even stronger here. In a reanimation deck, paying three cards from your hand to get it back was generally not your preferred option. Here, it’s your ‘nuclear option,’ being able to play up to three madness cards for the discounted rate all at once. The fact that you get a 6/6 bruiser back to your hand in that context is almost just a bonus!
The thirteen creatures which serve as your discard outlets are complemented by a pair of Lightning Axes. A beefed-up Lightning Bolt, the Axes give you all the power of a Lava Axe for a fraction of the cost, at instant speed- and without the players-only target restrictions. Again, the fact that it asks for the discard of a card is a bonus, but it’s worth noting that you can get around even that with the payment of extra mana if circumstances dictate. Strength and versatility- the perfect burn card for this deck.
One Step Beyond…
Now that you’ve gone to great lengths to make sure you can discard cards at will, let’s turn next to see what the rewards are for doing so. As it happens, Unraveling Mind has a total of fourteen cards with madness, meaning that you should seldom find yourself stranded without one.
First up is the Big Game Hunter. The benefit of the Hunter isn’t the body- a mere 1/1, he’ll probably end his days as a chump blocker. As with life, though, it’s often more important to look at what he does, not who he is, and in this case he’s a little fellow with a big stick. The ability to pick off a 4-power beater on the opposing lines targets just the sort of creature you’d most want to remove. Then you have the Brain Gorgers, which gives you either a 4/2 body or a forced Edict from your opponent- your opponent’s choice. This makes them a bit unreliable (your opponent can always just sacrifice a redundant 1/1), but either way you’re at least getting something.
The Nightshade Assassin is next, a 2/1 first striker which can kill something on the way in (Nekrataal, anyone?). There’s some subtlety here in the fact that it’s -X/-X until end of turn. Depending on how many cards you have in hand able to be revealed, this can go from outright creature kill to being a combat trick. Indeed, if you can discard this card when your opponent attacks, you can very easily shrink a larger creature down to a size that the Assassin can deal with herself. Less subtle is the Gorgon Recluse, a 2/4 body with a somewhat modified deathtouch ability. Although like many Black kills spells it can’t kill its own, it can actually kill a creature with protection from Black that is haplessly assigned to block it. It’s madness discount is quite significant, making the Recluse a potential early game-changer.
Then we have the Reckless Wurm, one of only two Planar Chaos timeshifted cards to make the cut. A re-imagining of Torment’s Arrogant Wurm, the Reckless model carries the same solid 4/4 body with trample, making it the third-largest creature in the deck. You also have a pair of Muck Drubbs, a solid enough 3/3 body with a rather unusual ability. Much like today’s Spellskite, you can use the Drubb to pull a target spell onto itself when it comes onto the battlefield. Although limited in application, it can cover a wide range of effects, from drawing removal away from a better creature of yours to stealing a creature aura your opponent is trying to play on one of their own. The presence of flash gives you the ability to keep the element of surprise even if you have to hardcast him rather than take advantage of his madness.
As before, we also find some noncreature magic stepping in to fill the same role. Here we find a pair of your removal cards, attractively discounted to single-mana-range if you can find a way to discard them when needed. Fiery Temper is simply madness’s version of Lightning Bolt, dealing 3 damage at instant speed. Dark Withering, on the other hand, is your Doom Blade, brutally overcosted if you can’t cheat it out with madness and an absolute steal if you can. You don’t have a ton of removal in your deck, and a lot of it is conditional, so exercise with care.
The rest of the deck is a collection of odds-n’-ends which don’t fall into the above madness engine but instead supplement it. For creatures, you have the Dauthi Slayer in addition to your deck’s two rares. Magus of the Arena is a massive beater, and has the ability to set two creatures to fight. Alas, the fact that he must tap to do this excludes him from the competition, but if you happen to have a Phantasmagorian in play it can turn him into a steady source of reusable removal. Of course, with a Dragon-sized body you might just prefer to send him in on the attack.
From there you have a Browbeat, a solid life-or-cards ultimatum for your opponent, as well as a Disintegrate for some direct damage. It’s great against creatures, and if drawn late can win you a game outright. Treacherous Urge is a clever little instant in Black, combining something Black loves to do (disrupt opponents’ hands) with something we typically associate with Red- temporary creature theft. Don’t pin your hopes on it- it’s five mana, after all, and can whiff quite easily if your opponent doesn’t happen to be holding anything of substance when you cast it. Still, it’s a good way to chump-block one of their attackers, or play at the end of their turn to snare an unexpected offensive threat. Finally, a Kor Dirge is a riff on the old Kor ability to play hot-potato with damage. In this case, the turn from White to Black allows you to actually project that damage onto another creature- preferably one of your opponent’s. That makes this removal, although somewhat conditional, but removal of any kind is welcome.
Overall, this looks to be one of Planar Chaos’s more intriguing offerings in a set already filled with interesting ideas. We’re looking forward to playing it out, and will have the results- and a score- back within two days.