Planechase 2012: Savage Auras Review (Part 1 of 2)
Prior to last November, once could be forgiven for feeling that Planechase had died a death unfulfilled. When the product released in 2009- the first of the new line of annual multiplayer-themed releases- it had tremendous potential, though it seemed to sputter and fizzle shortly after leaving the gate.
To be fair, you had no less than five new Planar cards issued after the four decks had launched. One of these, the highly sought after (and pricey) Tazeem was given out at Planechase release events. Celestine Reef was a tie-in with the upcoming Zendikar set, and available at the prerelease. The final three- Horizon Boughs, Mirrored Depths, and Tember City- were Wizards Play Network rewards. Tember City was the last of the line, releasing in June of 2010 as Magic’s eyes were already fixed on Planechase’s successor, Archenemy.
If it was mentioned at all, it was not uncommon to hear players lamenting the “lack of support” Planechase seemed to garner post-release. To be fair, the casual Magic market has always been somewhat off the radar and difficult to quantify, and as the kitchen table set played with the new format you’d see variants pop up like “Planar Map Magic” and the use of Planes in EDH (now Commander) games. “Save Planechase!” even became a rallying cry of sorts amongst the Magic community on Twitter, championed by those such as Jay “JayBoosh” Tuharksy of the Eh? Team Podcast (and site contributor to boot).
Then last November, Wizards announced that on the heels of Commander, the next multiplayer Magic product would be a return to Planechase. Clearly, Wizards had deemed the initial launch from 2009 enough of a success that it was worth a second issue, but more than that, they had learned a valuable lesson from Commander itself: players like new cards. It seems axiomatic and even obvious in retrospect, but at the time there was some trepidation from R&D as to how Commander’s slate of new, never-before-printed cards would be received. Magic players can be notoriously fickle, but for R&D this was a calculated risk. As it turns out, they needn’t have worried, and as a result we’re now treated to an additional crop of new cards in Planechase 2012.
The first deck of the four, Savage Auras, returns to one of Wizards’ familiar objectives, which is making creature auras playable. Although notorious for leaving a player susceptible to getting two-for-one’d, Wizards is unwilling to give up the ghost on the concept altogether. From time to time, we see the results of that in precons such as 9th Edition’s Custom Creatures and Rise of the Eldrazi’s Totem Power. Today’s deck is the latest incarnation.
Baffle the Artificers
As the name indicates, Savage Auras is a deck designed around enchanting your own creatures to outrace your opponent’s plays and the bulk of its creatures reinforce the theme. From top to bottom, the deck has cards that interact with auras, either by being directly upgraded themselves or by providing another benefit. For instance, look at the deck’s first creature card, the two-drop Dreampod Druid. In addition to being one of the new cards in the deck, the Druid offers the standard Green Grizzly Bears with a twist, giving you a steady stream of Saprolings whenever the Druid is enchanted. Also in the same cost slot is the rare Kor Spiritdancer, which yields both types of benefits. Not only does she get bigger herself for each aura she’s enchanted with, but she also turns every aura you cast into a cantrip.
Next up are a pair of Aura Gnarlids, like the Spiritdancer reprints from Rise of the Eldrazi (a set which itself had a heavy aura subtheme). The Gnarlids grow for each aura on the battlefield, making them successively harder to block. Meanwhile, White offers an Auramancer, another 2/2 that offers some card advantage by returning a spent aura from your graveyard to your hand.
While there aren’t any four-drops that support the deck’s central theme (we’ll get to those cards shortly), we do find a number of them at five. The Thran Golem was a rare card back in Urza’s Destiny, where it first saw print. Long since demoted to uncommon, it nevertheless is a natural fit here. Assuming you manage to get it enchanted (which f course is quite possible), you end up with a 5/5 beater with a raft of keyword abilities- including evasion. The Celestial Ancient prefers to spread the benefits amongst the team, giving every creature a +1/+1 counter whenever you cast an aura. Meanwhile, the Bramble Elemental falls in behind the Dreampod Druid as a source of token creatures, and the Dowsing Shaman is a reusable Auramancer. A reprint from Ravnica, the Shaman plays a crucial role here by offsetting the natural fragility of auras. By providing card advantage, these effects help counteract the disadvantage aura players can find themselves playing with.
Close to the top of the curve we find the Auratouched Mage, another Ravnican native. The Mage lets you not only tutor up an aura from your library, but lets you play it for free- on the Mage, of course. Finally, at the very summit is the deck’s new mythic rare, Krond the Dawn-Clad. Besides showing one-half of the conflict between the legends of Savage Auras and Night of the Ninja, Krond is a massive aerial closer that can shut down games if you manage to stick him on the board with an aura attached to him. Again we see the deck’s subtheme of incremental card advantage, as he’ll exile a permanent with every attack. Of course, with a 6/6 striking in from the sky, your opponent likely won’t have too long to worry about those lost permanents before the loss of life puts the game to rest.
The remaining creatures fill in the role of useful aura targets, though they themselves don’t offer any direct benefit from being enchanted. Creatures like the Silhana Ledgewalker and pair of Lumberknots make it all but impossible for your opponent to kill in response you you placing an aura upon them thanks to their hexproof, while twin Armored Griffins reinforce your presence in the air. Finally, the Elderwood Scion- another new creature- lessens the cost of any auras you wish to place on it, while making any spells your opponents cast that can target it harder to cast. Overall, say what you will about aura-based decks, but this is about as strong a supporting line-up as you can find for the archetype- albeit one that’s a bit pricey.
Protection and Order
Unsurprisingly, virtually every bit of the space allocated to your noncreature support spells are auras, a full fourteen cards. A couple of these (Cage of Hands, Quiet Disrepair) are offensive in nature, but the bulk of them are designed to make your creatures more powerful, even before any bonuses for auras kick in! Eight of these auras have the totem armor ability word, a mechanic from Rise of the Eldrazi. With a totem armor, you can cash in the aura as a one-shot effect to regenerate the enchanted creature. Each Umbra carries with it a number of benefits. Some of these are modest, such as the Hyena (+1/+1 and first strike) and Felidar (lifelink) Umbras, though the new Felidar Umbra also carries with it the ability to move from creature to creature. This is great for putting it on the creature that will give you the most advantage, but being able to move at instant speed also offers the possibility of “saving” the Umbra if you’d prefer not to sacrifice it for the totem effect.
The Boar Umbra offers a simple +3/+3 bonus, and the deck offers a pair of them. Meanwhile, an Ophidian-type effect comes courtesy of the Snake Umbra, while the Mammoth version upgrades the Boar with vigilance. Finally, the other new Umbra, the Indrik, gives a glut of blessings, from a +4/+4 bonus to first strike as well as a built-in Lure effect.
For the non-totem variety, there’s a Spirit Mantle (a new card itself from Magic 2012) and Rancor for combat upgrades, a Pollenbright Wings for the granting of evasion as well as additional token generation, and a Predatory Urge. Given the paucity of actual removal in the deck, cards like Predatory Urge will often be quite gratefully drawn, since it will allow one of your creatures to kill off something smaller than itself each turn (or simply trade out for a same-sized threat, though doing so puts you down two cards for their one).
The last four cards are a bit of a mixed bag. Three Dreams- another borrow from Ravnica- is a shoe-in here, offering a tutor for exactly what the deck most wants you to find. Moving forward a few expansions brings us to Conflux, which yields the Sigil of the Empty Throne. A simple enchantment, the Sigil gives you 4/4 Angels with every enchantment cast. Ghostly Prison, on the other hand, simply punishes your opponent(s) from attacking you, though later in the game when players have more mana than they can use it may have diminishing benefits. Finally, there’s a Fractured Powerstone, a unique mana artifact that has a Planechase-specific application. Standard issue for each of the set’s four decks, the Powerstone will let you reroll the planar die once a turn.
It’s useful to note that as is the case with many of these types of releases, you get a raft of nonbasic lands to support the deck. Considering the very mana-specific cost of Krond the Dawn-Clad in particular, being able to produce the colours you need when you need them is of paramount importance. Towards that end, you get a couple of Graypelt Refuges, part of Zendikar’s uncommon dual-land cycle, as well as Judgment’s Krosan Verge. A pair of Selesnya Sanctuaries rounds out the dual-land run, while you also have a single Terramorphic Expanse to plug any holes as you develop. Finally, augmenting the token-creature subtheme is Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree.
One to Heal, One to Harm
The Planes of Savage Auras are designed, quite naturally, to stack the deck a bit in your favour. Akoum is perhaps the most blatant, letting you cast all of your enchantments with flash. Since your opponents likely wont be playing many (if any), this is a fairly lopsided static effect. It’s Chaos effect- destroy an unenchanted creature- also works in your favour. Astral Arena, on the other hand, lets only one creature attack and block each combat. This may not seem lopsided on first blush, but it clearly rewards the player commanding the largest creatures. You might not start out with the largest creatures on the board, but you’ll certainly be looking to build them.
Meanwhile, Onakke Catacomb is another whose benefit may not be immediately apparent, since it gives every creature on the board deathtouch. This ability, however, is rather the opposite of the one on Astral Arena- it tends to be the smaller creatures that gain the most from deathtouch, since larger creatures are able to kill with or without the keyword attached. Remember all those 1/1 Saprolings the deck’s busy making? Bingo. This is also the benefit behind Kessig’s Chaos effect, where it helps to have numbers on your side.
Talon Gates plays with suspend, while the Grove of the Dreampods gives up a free creature each upkeep. The Edge of Malacol prevents tapped creatures from untapping, but in return offers them a pair of +1/+1 counters each untap step. Aretopolis, meanwhile, is a simple lifegainer Plane with a card-drawing Chaos effect. Though not as tailored to the nuances of the deck, there are advantages to be fond at each of thee locales.
Finally, the two Phenomena- Planewide Disaster and Chaotic Æther- are a split. Disaster keys off the deck to make a symmetrical effect one-sided, since all of your creatures with totem armor can survive the cataclysm (though at the cost of their auras). Chaotic Æther, on the other hand, lives up to its name, with a fortune-favoured player able to run away with things if they land on the right Plane.
Overall, the performance of Savage Auras is going to be highly contingent upon its meta. Although the incremental advantage strategy is certainly welcome, much of the deck’s success is going to rely upon finding- and sticking- your auras. If your opponent is playing a lot of removal, or even tempo/bounce plays, you’ll find you won’t be getting quite as much tread out of the tactic. Still, there’s only one way to know for sure, and in two days we’ll be reporting back on how Savage Auras performed in battle.