Visions: Unnatural Forces Review (Part 1 of 2)
In our opening review for Visions, the White Weenie deck Legion of Glory, we charted the development of the first two sets of Mirage block as being direct offshoots of Alpha, along with Ice Age and Invasion. Known then as Menagerie, the set developed by some of Magic’s original playtesters would contain enough content to fill out the bulk of two sets. As Bill Rose, onetime head of Wizards R&D and one of those playtesters relates, it was originally conceived that Alpha would rotate out en masse, replaced by Ice Age as Magic’s “main set.” Eventually, Ice Age would then be eclipsed by Mirage. Although this strategy didn’t end up being implemented, you can still see traces of the intent from the card lists. For instance, the spell Disenchant appears in each of the three. Other sets- notably Legends- were scripted more to be “add-ons” rather than standalone sets (Legends is notoriously weak in creature removal).
Because it was created before Alpha’s release but shelved until 1996, Menagerie spent the longest time in development of any Magic set. This meant that there was plenty of time for the set to evolve to fit the changing aims of Wizards. Although never concieved as being part of a trilogy, by the time Mirage was released the concept of a year-long block was firming up. Ice Age had been ensconced in a “block” by cobbling in Homelands between it and Alliances, but Mirage would be the first set that deliberately anchored its two successive expansions (although as we’ll later see, the second expansion, Weatherlight, needed a little coaxing).
From the outset Menagerie had a very strong mechanical identity. Extensive playtesting had shown Rose and others that “2/2 [vanilla] creatures for three mana [were] amongst the worst cards in Magic,” and it wasn’t a model that they wanted to carry over into their expansion. Still, with 3/3’s being a little too efficient for that cost at the time, the 2/2 was there to stay- it just needed a little something to sweeten the deal and make the cards actually playable. And thus, flanking was born. Putting one’s opponents on the back-foot not only made the three-mana 2/2 a much more attractive deal, it also encouraged attacking- one of the game’s primary goals (surprise).
The set’s other major mechanical innovation- phasing- was a bit more complicated. Conceived as a way of balancing getting a larger creature for a cheaper cost, the heart of the mechanic is that you get your creature every other turn rather than every turn. Although in the end it ended up being too complex for its own good (as we’ve mentioned before, it never made it out of Mirage, not even for a cameo in TIme Spiral block- though it did find a home in Unhinged), it did tie in well with the overall story of the set (the mage Teferi’s timestream meddling).
These two keyworded mechanics joined other concepts that had been floating around the circle of Alpha’s playtesters, like cumulative upkeep, cantrips, and multi-colour cards. When the block moved on to Visions the set preferred to expand upon the foundation already laid in Mirage rather than break new mechanical ground, though Visions is noted for having a significant number of creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities. It is this latter theme that gives today’s deck, the Blue/Black Unnatural Schemes, its own identity. Containing neither flankers nor phasers, it relies upon abusing the enters-the-battlefield mechanic and answering your opponent’s threats to begin to take control of the board.
Betrayal is Certain
The official introduction of Unnatural Forces states that the deck “is mainly a reactive deck. You’ll wait for your opponent to do something, then you’ll undo it. Once your opponent runs out of steam, you’ll take control of the battlefield.” In that sense, it is as much about establishing control as anything else. Visions introduced a large number of “enters-the-battlefield” creatures, and one of the most famous of these makes its appearance here.
In light of that, our opening drop- the Shrieking Drake- makes a bit more sense. Early in the game Wizards frequently released cards that were too good, spending successive iterations of that card refining it for balance. Take, for instance, Flying Men, a 1/1 flyer for . Essentially a reprinted Scryb Sprites in the more appropriate colour, it was soon apparent that Flying Men were just a bit too good. Like Lightning Bolt, a strong precedent meant that you had to work around that power level for successive cards, thus the introduction of Shock. Similarly, Flying Men have received a number of course correctives over the years. In search of balance, a number of drawbacks had been introduced to the card. Add in a blocking restriction, and you get Cloud Sprite from Mercadian Masques. A set earlier required you to actually enchant the creature (Fledgling Osprey) to let it take wing. Manta Riders require a mana investment. As recently as Rise of the Eldrazi we find the Skywatcher Adept. And of course, like Lightning Bolt, the original isn’t so broken that it can’t occasionally resurface, as Flying Men did in Time Spiral (as a “timeshifted” card) and again in Magic 2010 as the mighty Zephyr Sprite.
Naturally, smart decks will find ways to turn a drawback into an advantage, and so it is with Unnatural Forces. Don’t look at the Shrieking Drake as a 1/1 body that Unsummons one of your creatures. Instead, look at it like a free Unsummon for one of your enters-the-battlefield creatures that leaves behind a 1/1 flying body.
Things really begin to pick up in the deck in the two-drops. Since the deck wants to compel games to go long, wielding its disruption package like a scalpel and eking out incremental advantage all the while, a pair of Restless Dead make for a great stalling option in the red zone. Speaking of incremental advantage, you also get a pair of Brood of Cockroaches. These aren’t world-beaters at 1/1, but like the real insect itself they’re almost impossible to kill. The idea here is that you’ll never be caught without a creature as the game progresses, and it is a cheap way to reduce incoming damage as well. Simply chump block, recast, and repeat. Finally, you have access to a Coral Fighters, another 1/1 body but one with a nifty offensive trick. Whenever it damages your opponent, you get to fateseal them. Jace, the Mind Sculptor they’re not, but if you manage to keep the attacking lanes open they can help reduce your opponent’s draw quality.
We only find one creature in the three mana slot, a pair of Man-o’-Wars. Nothing one-sided here, when they enter the battlefield you actually do get an Unsummon, although naturally not at instant speed. Still, this cen help set up a solid tempo play, forcing your opponent to recast their most expensive bofy while you get a 2/2. Alternately, they’re also superb for removing a nuisance defender at opportune times, letting you swing in for unexpected damage.
It’s at the four-drops, though, where the deck truly begins to fill out. Waterspout Djinns offer you an Air Elemental with a slight drawback, but are one of the largest flyers on offer. This is as close to guaranteed power as you’re going to get here- other four-drops like Zombie Mob and Fetid Horror are rather more conditional in nature (needing dead bodies in the graveyard and Swamps on the battlefield, respectively). And while those latter two creatures can indeed get larger than a 4/4, they cannot hope to do so evasively.
Moving on, we find another “enters-the-battlefield” creature, one which spawned the term “187 creature.” Like many other of the deck’s creatures, the Nekrataal’s most impressive feature isn’t his body (though first strike makes him quite a bit more relevant). Rather, it’s the ability to instantly two-for-one your opponent for four mana that makes the Nekrataal the card that Shrieking Drake has dreams about. Finally, you get a pair of Kukemssa Serpents, cards which boast one of the most underwhelming keyworded abilities of all time: islandhome. The blame for islandhome can be lain squarely on the feet of the Vorthos community, as Wizards was looking for a flavourful way to explain why sea serpents could be on the same battlefield as bears and goblins. If there’s any upside here, it’s that the Serpent lets you get around the attacking prohibition if you’re playing a non-Blue opponent, but you have to offer up a land to do it. Not a card you’ll be excited to draw, regardless.
The Necrosavant, on the other hand, is. A massive 5/5 body that refuses to stay dead, like the Brood of Cockroaches your opponent will have to face the prospect of seeing it over and over and over again. Sooner or later, they’re either going to run out of removal, or run out of chump blockers.
Madness and Genius
Unnatural Forces is one of those delighful decks which actually bosts more spells than creatures, so to speak of the remainign cards as “noncreature support” is a touch disingenuous. Instead, much of the damage you’ll be doing to your opponent will come from this segment. For instance a pair of Coercions give you the ability to hit out at their hand, denying them their strongest card. Sealed Fate does a similar trick with their library, potentially stunting their development depending upon what you find there (and since you always get to exile one of the cards you see, the spell always does something).
Since it’s a control deck, you get abundant access to removal, though not all of it is permanent. A pair of Enfeeblements may not be as sexy as Innistrad’s Dead Weight, but it certainly can get the job done. Twin Ether Wells remove a creature from the battlefield for a turn, and can remove the threat altogether it it happens to be Red. Boomerang is an expanded Unsummon, while Flooded Shoreline is a costly but repeatable version. And if all else fails, well, you could always Ray of Command something and use it to trade out with another of your opponent’s attackers. Needless to say, the Ray becomes even more fun if you need to resurrect your Necrosavant, letting you sacrifice your opponent’s best creature to get back yours, but then with the trick costing nine mana it won’t be one you pull off often.
Still, you have other ways to interact with graveyards and make sure the dead are still a resource. A pair of Necromancies can be used at instant speed in a pinch, or simply give you a permanent outright if you choose the slower cast. They also can reach into your opponent’s graveyard, expanding the reach of what the spell can pull for you. Unnatural Forces also boasts a pair of Charms- Vision and Funeral. Each of these gives you your choice from amongst three minor, one-mana effects. Of the two, the Funeral version is clearly superior in almost every way, but the Vision Charm can occasionally be useful. Sure you can hope to mill a better creature for your Necromancy or save yourself the bother of sacrificing an Island so your Kukemssa Serpent can attack, but… okay, maybe occasionally is a just a bit of a stretch.
Finally, what Blue-base deck would be worth its (sea) salt if not for some card draw? Inspiration is a Divination effect that costs one more, but does offset the cost by letting you choose your target. Since there are few reasons you’d ever want to do this playing this deck, suffice it to say it’s a more expensive Divination. You also get the much more affordably-costed Impulse which, while it doesn’t draw you two cards like Inspiration does, at least lets you get the pick of the litter.
All in all, like Legion of Glory before it, Unnatural Forces has a more mature and developed feel when compared to the earlier Mirage decks. We’ll take it into the field to give it a thorough playtesting, then return to deliver a final verdict. See you then!