Planechase 2012: Chaos Reigns Review (Part 1 of 2)
The older we get, the more the years as simple numbers can become difficult to distinguish. “1992″ recedes into the mists of memory, though “the summer of my senior year” may burn brightly for all the rest of one’s days. So too it is in Magic when we talk about Standard environments. What were you playing in 2004? might provoke a momentary look of puzzlement and head-scratching, but the words “Ravager Affinity” are sure to bring the memories flooding back for any competitive player who was active then.
If we look back at some of the last few dominant archetypes to emerge from the Standard scene, it’s not too difficult to count back the seasons. Delver? Check. Caw-Blade? Sure. And then there’s this little ol’ thing called Jund. Saying that might lead one to conclude that we’re actually reviewing the Primordial Hunger deck, but in fact Jund decks didn’t waste their time with devour. Instead, they largely focused on incremental advantage, a concept most notably personified by a single card: Bloodbraid Elf.
As a four-mana 3/2 creature with haste, the Bloodbraid Elf was already a decent enough deal, but her cascade is what pushed her over the edge. Watching your opponent cascade into a free Blightning was nobody’s idea of fun, but the deck was so good at what it did that it was impossible to throw a spindown counter at a tournament without it caroming off half-a-dozen Jund pilots. Aside from feel-bad moments like these (which, to be fair, were feel-good moments if you were the one pulling them off), the cascade mechanic introduced an element of surprise and chance in a place other than your draw step, and was a fun and compelling innovation.
Chaos Reigns takes the seed of this idea, Bloodbraid Elf and all, and fuses it to a five-colour framework. We’ve seen five-colour precons before, such as Invasion’s Spectrum and the Coalition’s deck in Duel Decks: Phyrexia vs The Colalition, but such decks have tended to be base-Green affairs as Green is the primary colour for mana ramping and colour-fixing. We saw an unusual deviation from this framework with the Metallic Dreams deck from the inaugural Planechase release. Relying on mana Myr and sunburst to fix its colours, the deck’s artifact-centric colourlessness meant that it didn’t have to worry overmuch about allocation precious card slots to fixing the manabase. That gave it the freedom to go in any direction it wanted, and in the main it went Blue.
This time around, while there indeed are some artifacts present in the deck, Chaos Reigns instead does something of an end-run around its manabase. With cascade not caring a jot what colour a spell is, only its converted mana cost- the deck can take some liberties provided the bulk of it remain castable. And again, we see a five-colour deck carrying on in a most Blue manner.
Hopes Follow the Tides
In most cases in our reviews, we tend to break down a deck between its creatures and noncreature support, givien that regardless of strategy that is by far the most common design structure (call it the “24/12,” though of course it varies overall). With decks that are more engine-based, we’ll often break down the deck instead by grouping it into its component parts. For our review today, however, we’ll be trying something entirely new. Given that “living the dream” with a cascade deck involves a “cascade chain” from top to bottom of the mana curve, we’ll be looking at all cards in the deck- creatures and noncreatures- as they fall within their converted mana cost (CMC) slots.
There’s only a single creature here, but boy is it a doozy! The deck’s legendary mythic rare comes in the form of the Maelstrom Wanderer. While eight mana for a 7/5 is a poor bargain, it’s the Wanderer’s less tangible assets that really make it sing. First, with the Wanderer in play all of your creatures have haste. This is useful at any time, but as it happens it’s an ability that has the potential to outright steal a win for you.
You see, this being a cascade deck, the Wanderer features this akeyword not once, but an unprecedented two times. Cue the tired “it’s so beautiful, what does it mean” references, but this really can be a “double rainbow” of sorts as two entirely seperate cascade chains can kick off from casting this one card. Given the number of creatures with cascade in the deck, it’s entirely possible to find an “instant army” waiting for orders when the dust settles- one which can attack immediately against a very surprised opponent. Live the dream!
Again we find only a single card here, the Enigma Sphinx. Unlike the Wanderer, this one’s a reprint (from Alara Reborn, of course), but it fills an important role of being another oportunity to chain cascades. In addition, you can easily make a case that a 5/4 flyer is preferable to a grounded 7/5, so the Sphinx can be seen as the deck’s top closer as well.
Things start to really blossom from this point forward. The cascade chain has a couple of ways of perpetuating itself from here. First there’s the Etherium-Horn Sorcerer, another new card for the set. A six-mana, 3/6 body is nothing great, but the strength of the Sorcerer lies in the fact that it can be returned to hand for three mana. While this presents a number of advantages, from being an unkillable blocker to removal avoidance, the best part is that it allows you to cascade at will so long as you have the mana. The other option here- the Enlisted Wurm- is a simple 5/5 body that’s vanilla once the cascade resolves.
As for the chain-enders, we have a few of those here as well. A Brutalizer Exarch is a 3/3, but can either tutor you up a creature or remove a noncreature threat from the board- both are excellent. A pair of Fiery Falls, meanwhile, blast an opponent’s creature for 5 damage. Its basic landcycling also doubles here to help you get the manabase you need to start casting your top-of-curve options.
No cascade creatures here! Instead, we find a pair of useful effects that can keep the momentum going. First up is a Bituminous Blast, a 4-damage instant that must be directed at a creature. There’s also an Unsummon variant here in Deny Reality, which returns any permanent to its owner’s hand. You’ll seldom be at a loss for targets for either one of these, and both will be welcome flips when resolving a cascade.
As for other options, you get a Peregrine Drake from Urza’s Saga, a creature with the controvertial “free” mechanic. It’s a perfect inclusion here, as the rebate in lands it brings will be most useful after casting an expensive cascade creature. Sunken Hope is a good dual-purpose card in that it can punish your opponent while letting you stockpile value by casting a cascade creature turn after turn, putting yuou ahead in the race. Mass Mutiny is a classic Red creature-stealing spell that gives you one ‘volunteer’ from every player at the table. Finally, there are a pair of five-colour options here with the massive Fusion Elemental as well as Last Stand. Last Stand, from Apocalypse, is a card that rewards having a diverse manabase, as Chaos Reigns certainly does.
A pair of Bloodbraid Elves are the marquee cascade option here, putting the lone Kathari Remnant to shame. Still, even the lowly Bird Skeleton has a role to play. Aside from them, we find an Ondu Giant for mana ramping, a multitool Primal Plasma, and a Rivals’ Duel for some added removal power.
As we head towards the bottom of the chain, we find a huge glut of cards at this slot, giving your more expensive cascade options plenty of targets. Chief amongst these is the Shardless Agent, now currently sitting at $8 at Star City Games. It’s not hard to see why, being the first three-CMC creature card printed with cascade. As developer Zac Hill explains, there are some very compelling reasons why 3-CMC cascade is bad for the game (hint: something to do with variance), and a product like Planechase gives R&D the opportunity to create a creature like this, knowing it’s not going to be warping the Standard environment.
The rest of the cards here give you some bodies and options. A pair of Illusory Angels give you a cheap 4/4 flyer with an unusual casting restriction that offsets their discount, while the Guard Gomazoa goes in the other direction by providing you with a capable defender. A Whirlpool Warrior gives you the opportunity to flush your hand for new cards (and if you pop it, to do the same to your opponent as well). More hand shenanigans are in order with the Noggle Ransacker, while a trio of noncreature supporting spells have additional options available to you.
A copy of Cultivate helps establish the manabase so critical to achieving the fullest potential of the deckwhile both Erratic Explosion and Beast Within offer two very different forms of removal. The former plays up the chaotic nature of the deck, delivering a blast of variable size depending upon what you happen to reveal from your library. Beast Within, on the other hand, simply destroys something outright, leaving behind a 3/3 beast for its controller. On the upside, it targets a permanent, not just a creature, so it can take care of pesky enshantments and other such nuisances as well.
Finally, we get to the end. The options here tend to me more utilitarian than sexy, but will be useful at most any point of the game. A pair of Armillary Spheres lend a last bit of assistance towards developing the requisite manabase, while twin See Beyonds give a last little dose of hand sculpting. Arc Trail is a solid piece of burn, while the Fractured Powerstone- in addition to extra mana- give you an additional roll of the planar die each turn. These may be the cheapest cards in the deck, but you’ll be happy to cascade into most any of them off a Shardless Agent.
Given the five-colour nature of the deck, it’s no surprise that there’s a suite of nonbasic color-fixing lands to help smooth things out. Rupture Spires, Shimmering Grottos, an Exotic Orchard, and a Vivid Creek all give you the chance to tap for any colour of mana, while the single Terramorphic Expanse does things the old-fashined way and pulls a land out of your library instead.
A Match for Any Army
The Planes included with Chaos Reigns are a bit more generic than we saw with Savage Auras, though a couple of them are well-suited for the deck. Truga Jungle is perhaps the foremost of these, as it’s ability by nature is of greater help to decks playing the most colours, and Chaos Reigns plays all five. Trail of the Mage-Rings, on the other hand, affects your spells as you cast them, giving all instants and sorceries rebound. This is useful for any player, but becomes superb if you’re able to get bac, say, a Bituminous Blast and set off a bonus cascade.
The rest don’t generally convey additional advantage to you over your opponents, though they can do their share of hindering. The Hedron Fields of Agadeem, for example, hoses decks that rely too heavily on massive bodies- a state of being that applies both to the devour-fueled Primordial Hunger as well as the aura-happy Savage Auras. The prospect of awakening a free 7/7 Eldrazi token doesn’t hurt, either.
Planes like Nephalia and Mount Keralia seem to have a fairly even distribution of impact (though Mount Keralia might make the token-happy Primordial Hunger groan), while Orzhova empties the graveyards and dumps the creatures back into play. Since this isn’t casting, any cascade creatures will not kick off a free card, rending this Plane fairly symmetrical as well.
The final two Planes- Windriddle Palaces and Grand Ossuary, are rather odd inclusions. Since this deck is focused around the extra value cascade allows, it stands to reason you would want to keep that ability out of the hands of your enemies. Alas, the Palaces enable just that, giving your opponents the chance to steal a little of your fun. The Ossuary, on the other hand, is certainly useful, but seems like it missed its calling by not being included instead in the Primordial Hunger deck as a way to give even more value to the act of sacrificing creatures to make other ones bigger.
Like most of the Planes, the Phenomenon aren’t particularly tailored around the deck either. Time Distortion simply reverses the turn order, a bit like playing the Reverse card in a game of Uno. Mutual Epiphany refreshes your hand with four new cards, but alas it does the same for your opponents as well.
We’ll be taking this deck to the battlefield next, and will return in two days with a report on how well it held up.