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March 20, 2012

3

Visions: Wild-Eyed Frenzy Review (Part 1 of 2)

by ertaislament
Keeper of Kookus

One of the more intriguing aspects of Magic’s many sets- yet one of the more overlooked- are the creative talents that go into crafting them. If you play the game for any length of time, certain personalities tend to become prevalent, as thgey take on the role of the face of the game. Who reading this deosn’t have at least some passing familiarity with Mark Rosewater or Aaron Forsythe? Most should recognize the name Richard Garfield, at the very least as creator of the game itself. Perhaps if you’re a regular reader of the mothership, you can rattle off a number of the game’s other contributors, but as the game nears its second full decade of existence, the contributions of those that have come before risk being fading into obscurity.

In our Mirage theme deck reviews, one name came up over and over again: Frank Gilson. Although each of the four decks had their own diverse and unique origin story, Frank was involved in one capacity or another- either in an advisory role (Night Terrors, Jungle Jam), administering the polls that let the community sculpt the deck (Burning Sky) or in the very creation of the deck from scratch (Ride Like the Wind). In a similar vein, the names Pete Venters and Sue Ann Harkey are ones that might right a few bells to some, but might be a bit more challenging to recall the pivotal role he played in the crafting of the block itself.

If the first name sounds familiar, there’s good reason- as of this writing, Venters has illustrated a full two-hundred and eighty-three cards, including iconic images like Baron Sengir and Time Warp to more recent fare like Corpse Cur and Vulshok Berserker. A comic illustrator in the UK (who’s worked on 2000 AD, amongst others), he was recruited by Wizards in 1993 to provide illustrations for their new collectible card game. It didn’t take long for him to move into an expanded role within the company, wearing hats such as Continuity Director (overseeing transitions between sets within blocks) and Art Director. He was also centrally involved in such projects as the “Encyclopedia Dominaria,” a coffee-table book that would contain art and stories of the Magic: the Gathering multiverse, as well as the official Magic RPG. Sadly, neither of these latter projects made it past the developmental stages.

Sue Ann Harkey, on the other hand, has a much less obvious legacy. She was serving as the Art Director for Wizards at around the time of Mirage’s development, appointed right around when Mark Rosewater was walking in the front door. As Rosewater relates, she asked him what setting they were using for Sosumi, the code-name for what would become Mirage (named, like many of Magic’s earlier sets, for a sound file on their Macs). As mentioned in our earlier reviews, Mirage and Visions both were originally concepted in a set named Menagerie, one which was more or less devoid of any sort of overarching, flavourful narrative- not unusual at the time (see: Legends). Rosewater indicated they they had no preference, instead suggesting she come up with one. She did- “African jungle,” and at that moment Mirage- the setting, not the set- was born.

This worked well with Venters’ ambitions. One of the responsibilities he had as Continuity Director was to craft the art descriptions for each of the cards that made up the set. “The first thing that gets asked about a standalone,” he related in The Duelist, “is, ‘What’s the setting, and what can we do different from last time?’ In the case of Mirage it was obvious [in retrospect] to try a lush tropical environment after the Ice Age set. Mirage was also fueled by my desire to increase the amount of racial diversity in Magic, which was starting to settle into a very Eurocentric medievalism.”

Between the two, they helped sculpt the look and feel of the world of Jamuraa, a world we get to experience through the prism of its six-hundred and eighty-four cards. At this point, we now have our card set mapped out and designed, and a world to put it in. But of course, much more goes into a world than simply establishing a setting. Even a set with as back-grounded a backstory as Mirage needed a tapestry to give the cards flavour and context. We’ll look at that element in our final Visions piece, but for now we find a deck that doesn’t worry about such trimmings and trappings. Rather, it draws upon one of the game’s longstanding and familiar designs to do its dirty work: mono-Red beats n’ burn.

Hand in the Fire

The deck opens encouragingly enough with a gaggle of one-drop Goblins. The Goblin Swine-Rider is an unusual card, acting as a sort of triggerable Pyroclasm that only affects creatures in combat. In that regard, it’s a bit of an off choice, given how many of the creatures in Wild-Eyed Frenzy can be killed off by it. On the other hand, it can make blocking it an unpleasant notion for your opponent, depending upon what sort of deck they’re playing. In any event, play with caution.

Next up is the Keeper of Kookus, a creature with a tale to tell. A 1/1 with an activateable protection ability, the Keeper is one creature that isn’t worrying about the Swine-Riders. That said, unless your opponent is playing a Red deck, there isn’t much else the Keeper is going to do early in the game, though as we’ll see there is a special purpose to this hapless little Goblin. The deck gives you three copies of both of these cards, as well as a pair of Goblin Soothsayers. The Soothsayers are a repeatable creature pump that, while expensive, can offer a fairly substantial bonus. And while the deck’s Goblin population is fairly high, there will be times you don’t hasve a spare Goblin on hand. The good news there is that the Soothsayer is able to commit suicide for the squad, so you’re sure to get at least one use out of it.

We find another cluster of Goblins huddled around the two-drop slot. The Goblin Tinkerer is another small body with a conditionally useful ability, being able to smash an opponent’s artifact- with some chance of living to tell the tale. The Goblin Elite Infantry are 2/2 bodies- robust for their kind- that nevertheless shrink when facing any kind of opposition. Lastly, you get a pair of Goblin Recruiters, one of the deck’s most intriguing options. Each Recruiter lets you stack your deck with as many Goblins as you’d like. While on first blush this might seem a bit generous- hey, unlimited Goblins!- it should quickly become apparent that every time you draw a Goblin, you’re not drawing burn spells or the lands you will need for some of your deck’s more expensive offerings. This gives it a nice bit of balance and design elegance, but you’ll want to make sure you don’t clog your draws with cheap creatures.

Goblin Elite Infantry

The three- and four-drop slot are virtual wastelands, given that each only carries with it a single card. In the three-drops you find a Viashino Sandstalker, a strong card offset by the need to continually recast it. On the upside, this does keep it relatively safe against your opponent’s removal. Next we see the familiar Flame Elemental, a fixture in Mirage’s heavy Red offering Burning Sky. A Lightning Bolt on a stick, the Elemental can pull double-duty of being a beater in its own right until something that needs removing comes along.

That gap in the mana curve gives way once we hit the five-drops, where you have a wide variety of upgraded offensive options. The Minotaurs get their day in the sun here, offering a pair of the anti-flying Talruum Pipers. For a more straightforward approach, you get two of the Talruum Champion, whose first strike trumps any other creature’s comparable ability (this sort of ability would someday be jokingly referred to as “firstest strike,” a concept which would indeed some time later see life as double strike).

The deck’s rares both clock in with this category as well. The Ogre Enforcer is a 4/4 that’s a bit tougher to kill than usual. Although having a large body that can’t be gang-blocked by lesser beings is somewhat useful, it’s a bit hard to see the justification for this card taking up a rare slot in the deck. A little more exciting is Kookus, a 3/5 Djinn with trample and Firebreathing attached to it. Of course, the downside is that you need to have a Keeper of Kookus in play to act as a tender, otherwise the Kookus goes on a rampage. Theme decks frequently employ pumpable creatures in mixed-colour decks as a way to balance the possibility of heavy damage, but Kookus fans will be pleased to note that every land in Wild-Eyed Frenzy is a Mountain, meaning that even with the 3 damage you might take each turn if you haven’t found a Keeper of Kookus should be nothing comared to what you’ll be able to offer your opponent. With the recent re-entry of the term “top-down design” into the public square with the release of Innistrad, Mark Rosewater’s thoughts on this card, written in 2004, are an interesting close to the creature portion of this review:

[Kookus and Keeper of Kookus] were top-down design cards. The designers liked the idea of a red djinn that was out of hand if not properly controlled. (Without his keeper, he attacks you and the opponent each turn.) Keeper of Kookus was then given an activated protection from red ability to explain how the wee little goblin can control the mighty djinn.

Sang Slaughter and Danced Death

 The remaining cards of Wild-Eyed Frenzy constitute the expected noncreature support complement to the combat-oriented creature package. The burn suite is reasonably well-established and surprisingly consistent. A trio of Flares aren’t going to kill a lot on their own, but since they replace themselves in their hand when cast the opportunity is there to two-for-one your opponent. There’s also a pair of one of the game’s all-time great burn spells, Fireblast. Wildly overpriced for their effect, this card is all about its alternate casting cost. Effective as it is, it’s somewhat wasted here. Popping off two Mountains for a fiery blast of damage is a fantastic offer in the right deck- it’s just that Wild-Eyed Frenzy isn’t that deck. To make the most of this card, you need a surplus of land, just the sort of thing you mind in an Red Deck Wins/Sligh build with a low, narrow mana curve. As we noted above, this deck has an unusually high number of expensive cards in it, and casting this by its alternate cost can severely hinder your ability to land your biggest threats. This forces you into trying to hardcast it, and since six mana is a bit steep that too isn’t the best option. Although there are few spells better at dealing that final, fatal burst of damage to your opponent, you’ll want to play these cautiously. Alas, that’s about all you have for burn, though we did note the Flame Elemental above. You also get an Unerring Sling for some slightly clunky, but repeatable direct damage- but only against fliers.

Goblin Scouts

There’s also the expected pack of creature augments. Song of Blood is a sorcery which can give your creatures a massive power boost, though it’s not entirely consistent. It does, however, combo extremely well with Goblin Recruiter, so if you’re not in immediate need of Goblins you might consider hanging on to a Recruiter for when you draw into this. The other card here is Mob Mentality, a similarly clever creature aura. This one gives you a bonus for swinging in with everything, which is something you’ll want to be doing as often as you can anyway (unless you’ve made yourself vulnerable to the Swine-Rider’s on-block effect). Neither are fantastic, both are conditional, but it’s what you have to work with.

Finally, the deck gives you some additional creature generation in a pair of Goblin Scouts. This card calls back to Sue Ann Harkey, the Art Director mentioned in the introduction. As Rosewater tells it, Harkey was a gifted Art Director, but wasn’t very familiar with the game of Magic itself. Thus a card called Dwarven Regiment found itself paired with some very un-Dwarflike art. Dwarven Regiment- which created a trio of 1/2 mountainwalking Dwarf tokens- was killed, and Goblin Scouts was born. Note, too, the subtle ribbing in the card’s flavour text. The last three cards are a trio of Chaos Charms. Although one of the abilities (destroy target Wall) is fairly poor and hasn’t seen much improvement in time (Walls declined precipitously once defender was keyworded), the other two can be quite useful.

All in all, Wild-Eyed Frenzy seems a bit conflicted with itself, given the broad gulk in converted mana costs. Nevertheless, we’ll be reserving judgment until we see it in action. We’ll put it through its paces, and return to render a verdict.

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