Avacyn Restored: Angelic Might Review (Part 1 of 2)
As we’ve often touted these past four months, 2012 is the “Year of Firsts.” From the first set to release Theme Decks (Tempest) to the first-ever block to see Magic: the Gathering Online-only deck releases (Mirage) and a number in between, we’re kept to that theme even as we’ve made allowances for new releases like Dark Ascension and Duel Decks: Venser vs Koth. Right on schedule, we now move on to the third set in Innistrad block, Avacyn Restored. And unless we really want to warp the spirit of our initiative and claim that Avacyn Restored falls within the Year of Firsts by merit of being the first Magic set with the name “Avacyn” in the title, we’re completely fine with the set being another departure from theme.
But is it?
Indeed, as it happens, Avacyn Restored fits into the narrative of novelty rather well, although as a successor and inheritor rather than a trailblazer. To place the set in its proper context, it’s worth going back and revisiting our recently-concluded Project Mirage Block. 1996′s Mirage as a set was a watershed moment in Magic’s history, and not for nothing Mark Rosewater- when tacing the history and development of the game- uses Mirage as the entry point for Magic’s “Silver Age.” It was the first set designed with Limited play in mind, and although not initially designed as such it was to be the first-ever release that would cement the block structure. Up until that point, sets were released as one-offs. Legends, Fallen Empires, The Dark- all these sets were self-contained, with no overarching narrative between them. Ice Age innovated with the concept of a “sequel set” in Alliances, though it would not find block completion until over a decade later with Coldsnap, “the lost set.”
“Menagerie,” the set that would form the backbone of Mirage and Visions, was not designed to be part of a block, but as Wizards developed a clearer idea of how they wanted sets to be interconnected on an annual basis they moved to round it out with a third set, which became Weatherlight. Weatherlight was loosely tied to Mirage/Visions, with a few thematic and mechanical carryovers to provide it the veneer of continuity, but Weatherlight’s main purpose was to act as the prologue for Wizards’ next ambition: using the game to tell a story. Long hungry for a narrative arc beyond just releases of cards, Wizards wanted to craft an epic that would span across sets, and what better way than to harness the concept of the “three-act play.” Indeed, the Weatherlight Saga would be a three-act play within a three-act play, as each of the three blocks that told the tale (1997′s Tempest, 1999′s Mercadian Masques, and 2000′s Invasion) were themselves comprised of three sets. The Weatherlight Saga was a great success, and it cemented the concept of the three-set block being the defining release structure of future sets.
Of course, Magic isn’t a game that has done well by leaving well enough alone, and in 2007 it was time to tinker again. There had been six blocks since the conclusion of the Weatherlight Saga (with 2001′s Apocalypse), and perhaps it was time to try and tell a story in a new way. And so in the second half of 2007 as players began queuing up for Lorwyn, they found something a bit unusual: a two-set block, which would be connected to a second two-set block (2008′s Shadowmoor). We’ll go deeper into this once we commence our Lorwyn review (following Avacyn Restored), but suffice it to say that when Wizards went about designing a one-set block for Innistrad, it had the precedent of Lorwyn firmly in mind. That wasn’t a typo, by the way- Innistrad was originally concepted as a one-set block, a tale we’ll be picking up in our next deck’s review.
But for now… here be angels.
Leave to Rest
There’s no small amount of distance between the original plan for a one-set Innistrad and what we have now, which is a three-set block with a large-size third set, much as we saw for Zendikar block with Rise of the Eldrazi. That’s no idle comparison, either, for as we’ll see the design elements that made Rise so distinctive are back for Avacyn Restored. Angelic Might, you see, is the descendant of Battlecruiser Magic.
“Battlecruiser Magic” was the term often applied to Rise of the Eldrazi. Although less apt for the set’s Standard presence, where it had to jostle with other sets for room at the table, it was the perfect metaphor for the set’s Limited game. The concept was simple: enable players to play massive, fat beatsticks (the Eldrazi) which are enabled by a multi-colour ramping strategy (Eldrazi Spawn tokens, such as those made by Awakening Zone and Rapacious One). Rather than play a game of incremental advantage, the environment would reward all-eggs-in-one-basket play where you spent your early and midgame establishing the ability to then squeeze out a massive, must-answer threat like Artisan of Kozilek or Hand of Emrakul. The annihilator ability- forcing an opponent to sacrifice permanents when attacked- would then go some way to restore the card disadvantage incurred to ramp out the beatstick, and if they couldn’t kill the “battlecruiser” then it was typically game over before long.
The weakness in this plan was removal. What was the point of compelling players to jump through hoops and hurdles to land a battlecruiser, only to see it eat a Doom Blade? Having abundant access to cheap, easy removal would let all of the air out of the room, so Wizards compensated for this by toning down what was available in the environment. Flame Slash was about as big as it got in the burn department, and the battlecruisers were hardly intimidated by 4 damage. If you wanted to go bigger (Heat Ray), you were going to be needing a ton of mana (and probably a full turn to do it). Meanwhile, in the outright creature kill area, you had no easy go of it either. Sure there was Vendetta, but taking out a massive battlecruiser with it was a very painful proposition. Corpsehatch would do the job just fine (and net you a couple of the Eldrazi Spawn in the process), but it was uncommon and cost five mana. For all that, Wizards did a fine job of ensuring that if you did everything you needed to to get your battlecruiser onto the board, you stood a very good chance of seeing your labours rewarded.
While Avacyn, Angel of Hope certainly can stand amongst any of the non-mythic Eldrazi for size, Angelic Might doesn’t quite ask you to aspire to those heights- your largest creature here is a 4/6 or 5/5. Still, the concept is similar- orchestrate the ability to deploy a large, expensive closer and smash in with it for the win. Just as in Rise of the Eldrazi, the removal suite in the set (indeed, in all of Innistrad block) has been muted, and the Intro Pack decks generally observe this in spirit as well by not simply grabbing a bunch of removal from Magic 2012 to make up for the shortcoming. In the absence of Eldrazi Spawn tokens, however, you’ll need to rely upon more traditional methods of bringing fat beaters into play: ramp and stall. With no less than seven Angels at the fat end of the curve, this is a deck that needs some time to put itself together. Fortunately, it comes well-equipped to give you every chance to launch your bombs.
A look at the deck’s one-drops tells you exactly what you need to know about how the deck intends to do that. A pair of Gideon’s Lawkeepers are present to lock down your opponent’s worst offensive threat each turn, which should blunt their offensive momentum against you. You also get a pair of Cathedral Sanctifiers, another 1/1 body that gives you a dose of lifegain when it enters the battlefield. Angelic Might is a deck that is quite happy to buy time with life, so don’t hesitate to soak up some early damage in the faith that you won’t stay low on life for long. Ordinarily we’re not the biggest fan of lifegain strategies, but that’s because they’re often filler that’s only situationally useful. In Angelic Might, they’re a core part of your plan and take on a greater degree of importance.
Moving to the two-drops, we find another stalling tactic here in a pair of Angelic Walls. Perhaps not quite as exciting as Rise’s Wall of Omens due to its card draw, these nevertheless are stronger defensively and like the Lawkeepers can shut down your opponent’s strongest threat each turn into the midgame. You also get a singleton copy of a Timberland Guide, which at the core of it is simply a more flexible Runeclaw Bear at the same cost. The “flicker” mechanics of Avacyn Restored (exiling a permanent from play only to return it) doesn’t seem much employ in Angelic Might, but as we’ll see there are a few ways to ensure you get the most out of the Guide.
We pivot towards the business end of the stick with the deck’s five three-drops. A trio of Borderland Rangers make their appearance here to help ensure you hit your land drops steadily and on-time. We also find our first Angel in the Emancipation Angel. A 3/3 flier for three mana is a fine deal, while her drawback (reminiscent of Kor Skyfisher) can be put to good purpose. In just the first three drops we’ve already seen some cards which you’d happily replay (Cathedral Sanctifier, Timberland Guide, Borderland Ranger), and there will certainly be a few more as we continue to climb the mana curve.
As if in preparation for the explosion we find at the top of the curve, the deck’s four-drops are quite spartan- a pair of Seraphs of Dawn. Here we find another of the deck’s lifegain options, and while 2 power may not be all that much, we again see some cross-card synergies shaping up with ways to increase her power level. A Timberland Guide for one +1/+1 counter, bounced back with an Emancipation Angel and replayed for a second is a perfectly serviceable line of play here, and a 4/6 lifelinking evasive body is one that can run away with the game.
That, of course, takes some orchestration. Those unwilling or unable to wait can certainly find gratification of a more immediate nature at the very top of the curve. While the deck gives you the tools you need to stall out the game (tappers, walls, lifegain) as well as ramp your manabase, having this many expensive cards in the deck will nevertheless mean that you’ll need to be prepared for substandard opening hands. Ideally you won’t see any of these ladies early in the game, but chances are you’ll effectively be mulliganing yourself early in exchange for greater power later on in the game.
We begin with the Serra Angel, for what would an Angel deck be without this classic from the earliest days of the game? A straightforward 4/4 flier with vigilance, the Angel has long been a staple of preconstructed Magic. For the same cost (and one rarity class higher), we find the deck’s foil premium rare, the Herald of War. Although she lacks the vigilance of her Serra sister, she will connect the first time as a 4/4. In addition, she’ll continue to grow each attack, and for each +1/+1 counter on her you get to reduce the cost of your Angel and Human spells (hello Timberland Guide!). Left unchecked, the Herald can help you blow out your opponent in fairly short order.
The next two Angels cost an impressive six mana apiece. The Voice of the Provinces is one of the deck’s least-impressive options, bringing in a 1/1 Human token when she enters the battlefield. In a deck with a number of ways to flicker her, the Humans can add up in a hurry. Alas, as mentioned above this isn’t that sort of deck, so most of the time all you’re really getting here is four power over two bodies for six mana. Still, the extra Human is not without its uses, particularly when you’ve got a Goldnight Redeemer in hand. The other six-drop, she comes into play with a limited Congregate effect that rewards you for your degree of commitment to the board.
Finally, weighing in at an Eldrazi-worthy seven mana, we find the deck’s final two creatures. The Archangel comes to us by way of Visions (as well as Portal), and is simply a beefier Serra Angel for two more mana. The Angel of Glory’s Rise- the deck’s other rare card- is a hefty 4/6 flier and an absolute blowout when playing an opponent with a Zombie deck, but still useful even when not thanks to her returning all of your fallen Humans to the battlefield. Although if you’ve managed to get to the point where you could cast her you’re likely already ahead, having a little extra insurance never hurts either.
Faith Can Quicken
The noncreature support of Angelic Might is a fairly diverse lot. You have the expected removal and ramping packages, but you also get a number of unusual spells and effects. In keeping with the powered-down theme of the block, the removal is nothing to get excited about. To be fair, you do get an Oblivion Ring, White’s answer to nearly anything outwith land. Aside from that, however, you’ll need to do the bulk of your grim work in the red zone. A pair of Righteous Blows will crush a smaller creature that looks to engage in combat with you (or finish off a larger one that’s already been wounded), but Defang suffers from the same liability as Rise’s Guard Duty did- it still leaves a body behind on the battlefield. On the upside, the creature neutered with Guard Duty could still defend, but a Defanged one will simply Fog an attacker each turn.
For ramping, the go-to card here is Rampant Growth, and the deck gives you a pair of them. Beyond that, things become a bit harder to classify. There’s a touch of creature augmentation here in the Bladed Bracers, and since few of your Angels (and none of your Humans) come with a naturally-occurring vigilance, this will nearly always be useful and relevant. It’s cheap cost to play and equip doesn’t hurt its case either. In Defy Death, you get to “augment” something out of your graveyard, provided that something is an Angel. It almost always should be- your most expensive Human only costs three mana and comes in multiple copies, so that’s usually a step down for the card.
If the deck’s complement of eleven Angels aren’t quite enough for you, you have the opportunity for more through a pair of Angel’s Tombs. Like the Emancipation Angel, a three-mana 3/3 flier needs a drawback for balance, and in this case it’s the fact that it’s only conditionally a creature, and only on your turn. Although an inferior choice, the Tomb’s main benefit is that as an artifact, it can help you establish some threat presence on your first three mana, regardless of what colours you draw. The Emancipation Angel, on the other hand, cares very much about the cut of your manabase. Rounding out the artifact suite is a Scroll of Avacyn, a perfect fit here as it’s essentially free lifegain that cycles itself for two mana.
Ronding out the deck are a paid of enchantments. Builder’s Blessing is simply a functional reprint of Castle, which hasn’t seen a printing press since Seventh Edition. It’s been rechristened to keep with the naming conventions of the modern game, which tend to avoid making enchantments out of physical things. Case in point: Triumph of Ferocity. Easily the set’s most controversial card, the art has been the subject of a virtual firestorm amongst the Magic community on Twitter. Rightly or wrongly (opinions widely vary), Wizards did officially apologise for the effects the card had on some members of the playing community. Brand Director Elaine Chase, the subject of our most recent round of Planechase reviews, took to Twitter to express Wizards’ regrets. Leaving aside commentary on the card’s form, we’re quite happy about its function- although three mana for a “do-nothing” enchantment isn’t all that exciting at first, with the sizable number of high-power cards in the set you should at the very least expect it to replace itself in your hand at the next upkeep.
The last card of note here is a nonbsic land, as the deck naturally includes a miser’s copy of Seraph Sanctuary to supplement its suite of lifegain. Overall, the jury’s still out on this latest round of Battlecruiser Magic, but we’re excited to give it a test run. We’ll be back in two days to report back on how the deck held up in play, and render a final verdict. See you then!