Lorwyn: Elementals’ Path Review (Part 1 of 2)
Although beyond the scope of what we cover here, Lorwyn introduced one of the most seismic shifts ever witnessed in the game with the introduction of the planeswalker card type. Hinted at in Future Sight, it had indeed originally been intended to release with that set but had been pushed back. Although somewhat incongruous (a pack of Humans on a plane that featured no Humans), it left an immediate mark on the game and has been a critical component of it ever since.
On the other hand, the rest of the set’s many mechanics have been decidedly less so. One question we’ve pondered throughout our exploration of Lorwyn was whether or not the set was the “failure” that Wizards notables Mark Rosewater and Aaron Forsythe have deemed it. In our last review (Kithkin Militia), we concluded that its world-building and lore was a push, though Lorwyn resonated strongly with enough players so that the set’s Theme Decks remain pricey and hard to come by in the aftermarket. This is due in no small part to the success of its tribal component, as the remaining mechanics have been quite a bit more subdued.
In addition to the aforementioned, Lorwyn brought us a number of other mechanical innovations. We were given expensive creatures that had enters-the-battlefield abilities which could be played just for those abilities (evoke). There was a cycle of rare lands which presented you with a ‘quest’ of sorts, giving you the reward of a card for meeting their varied objectives (hideaway). Changelings were the sort of Joker of the deck for the tribal set, but outside of that environment tended to be less significant. You even had the element of a mini-gmae whereby your spells could get just a little more gas if you happened to “win” (clash). Finally, there was champion.
According to Mark Rosewater, champion was designed to represent the ‘evolution of a creature from a typically weaker form into a stronger one. History has not been especially kind to champion, as we’ve witnessed subsequent attempts to hit that same resonance that have been more successful. The problem with champion is that it seemed arbitrary- you endure the loss of one creature in order to deploy its ‘enhanced’ version, but then if it dies you don’t lose the creature- it just goes back to being what it was. The only tie between the two is the creature type. Rosewater indicated that this was deliberate and intended, as they wanted to make sure that players had as much leeway between the ‘base models’ and the ‘evolved ones’ so that they had the greatest flexibility.
Unfortunately, this also left the mechanic with an inherent dissonance that the Vorthos set found a bit jarring. It would take 2010′s Rise of the Eldrazi, with its level up mechanic, to hit upon the missing ingredient- if you want to show evolution, you also need to show continuity. Its certainly true that ‘even Rocky had a montage,’ but the connecting thread is that it’s Rocky at the beginning and Rocky at the end. From the Kabira Vindicator to the Kargan Dragonlord, level up conveyed that sense of creature improvement far more effectively than champion. More recently, the dual-faced cards of Innistrad further played with the concept of creature evolution in a more viscerally transformative sense. Here the “basic” and “evolved” forms of each creature were actually on the same card, a mechanical implementation borrowed from Wizards’ Duel Masters game.
From a preconstructed perspective, of the remaining mechanics only evoke has seen general employ beyond Lorwyn. The mighty Mulldrifter has appeared in products ranging from Commander to Duel Decks: Jace vs Chandra, while Shriekmaw has popped up in Commander, Archenemy, and Duel Decks: Ajani vs Nicol Bolas. In none of these products is evoke anything more than a bit of gravy that makes the card useful, but useful they are. Today’s deck, Elementals’ Path, is the ancestral home of these evoke Elementals, as well as playing host to a large contingent of Flamekin. The Flamekin themselves have an interesting origin, created as they were to fill the void left by shunting Goblins into Black. Wizards anted to avoid overstocking the power level of the Goblins archtype- a lesson learned from the first tribal set, Onslaught. When Goblins made their seismic leap acorss the flavour and colour pie divide, the Flamekin arose to fill in the void.
While mechanically, Lorwyn has generally failed to impress, today’s deck does have another interesting claim to fame: membership in a very select club. Elemental’s Path is only the fifth five-colour Theme Deck. It follows on the heels of a trio of decks from Invasion Block (Spectrum, Domain, and Pandemonium), and the Fifth Dawn deck Sunburst. It is also the last. After the sun set on Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Block, it set also on the Theme Deck. That staple of preconstructed Magic which had been around since Tempest would be no more. The following set, Shards of Alara, brought with it a new construction, the “Intro Pack,” different in both form and function. But that is a tale for another time- today belongs to the Elementals.
Walk the Path of Flame
Elementals’ Path is an interesting construction, in essence more or less a “deck of two halves.” The first half is your Flamekin deck, which is a reasonably aggressive mono-Red build. This is where we’ll begin.
The Flamekin are actually a touch swifter than some of your other Lorwyn tribes, coming right out of the gate with a total of five one-drops. First up is the Flamekin Brawler, a base 0/2 with Firebreathing baked right in. The Brawler offers the promise of immediate aggression as early as turn 2, but it comes at a cost. The trap these cards present to you is that you often find yourself tempted to max out their power pump, to “get the damage in while you can.” Not infrequently, your opponent finally solves them, then you realise that you’ve done nothing else to advance your board state. This is a trade Red mages are long familiar with- short-term gain at the expense of the long-term, but that’s typically because Red mages have direct damage in the form of burn that they can apply to their opponent to finish the job. You have no such luxuries here, so don’t be afraid to park the Brawler for a turn or swing for a niggle here or there as you develop your board with other creatures.
Next up is the Flamekin Bladewhirl. The Bladewhirl is part of the same cycle that gives us the “discount” creatures like Wren’s Run Vanquisher and the Squeaking Pie Sneak, but it is the very worst of the lot. As a one-drop, it is outclassed by the 2/2 Goldmeadow Stalwart. As a 2/1, it is similarly outperformed by the Silvergill Adept, which puts you up a card for the very cheap price of . Indeed, if you’re on the draw you might well find yourself going through the trouble of tapping out and revealing an Elemental from hand- just to see your opponent drop a 1/1 that can trade out with it. None of this comes as a surprise to our Red mages, though, who are used to creature inefficiency. On the upside, the Flamekin get arguably the best tutor with the Flamekin Harbinger. Others in the lateral cycle either come with extra abilities/stats to drive up their cost (Elvish Harbinger, Merrow Harbinger, Kithkin Harbinger) or are simply just bad (Boggart Harbinger).
The two-drops reveal the other major tactical focus of the Flamekin outside of early aggression: ramping. With a high volume of expensive cards on the back-end of the deck, Elementals’ Path is wise enough to know it needs all the help it can get. Much like Elvish Predation, it gives you some ability to accelerate the deck’s output production. A trio of Smokebraiders are as good as it gets. These 1/1′s dump two mana into your mana pool, and it can be of any colour. Sure it’s limited to Elemental spells and activated abilities of Elementals, but those two classes cover most everything you’re going to be asking of the deck in the first place. If that wasn’t enough, you also have three Soulbright Flamekin. These offer an intriguing twist on ramping. If you have six mana available, you can convert it to eight in a straight exchange that also sees up to three of your creatures gain trample. Until then, it’s a great way to gain a little extra combat boost for your attackers. With six such cards at your disposal, you’ll see at least one virtually every game.
Moving on to the three drops, we’re back in more familiar territory for Red with some combat boosting. The Inner-Flame Acolyte gives any creature a power pump as well as haste when it touches down, which means you can even let it pump itself to swing for a surprise 4 damage. This is also the first creature with the evoke ability, which gives it quite a bit more flexibility. New players often tend to shy away from cards which lose them one of their own creatures, but Elementals’ Path cannot be played well with such trepidation in mind. For best results, it might help to look at the evoke creatures as spells first, and only second as creatures. This won’t always be correct, but games can be lost by holding on too long to one of your larger creatures simply because you don’t want to evoke it and lose the body.
You also find a pair of Inner-Flame Igniters here, which has a brutally powerful activated ability- with the pricetag to match. Of course, if you can get to nine mana you probably deserve to have your army swinging in with +3/+0 and first strike. Finally, the first rare card appears in the Incandescent Soulstoke. A tribal lord, the Soulstoke gives all of your other Elementals +1/+1. In addition, it has a nifty trick which lets you cheat out any Elementals you have in hand onto the battlefield with haste for a very cheap cost. This is a superb way to bring your biggest threats on-line in the shortest amount of time, and although they die at the end of turn, as we’ll see dead isn’t necessarily dead as far as the Elementals are concerned.
Up the ladder a rung we find a nice bit of synergy in the Ceaseless Searblades. A robust 2/4 as it is, they get +1/+0 every time you use an activated ability. Considering that eleven of the past fifteen creatures we’ve touched on can activate, this is an ability that should see no small amount of use itself. Another larger body is offered by the Changeling Berserker. A 5/3 with haste, the Berserker has two main benefits. First, of course, is the surprise of swinging for 5 right off the bat. The other upside to the card is that many of the Elementals in the deck have enters-the-battlefield (ETB) abilities. By championing one of those, you get an extra trigger of their ability once your opponent manages to kill off the Berserker. We see this again with the Changeling Titan. Although it lacks the haste of the Berserker, it makes up for that with a size not often found on the creatures in the Lorwyn Theme Decks. Like the Berserker, champion is more of an upside here than in other decks thanks to the prevalence of ETB triggers.
Lorwyn’s First Mysteries
The “second half” of the deck branches out into the Elemental beings of Lorwyn, and it’s here that we find the greatest use of the evoke keyword. All but one of these Elementals has the ability to be played as a spell rather than a creature for cheaper cost, and it is interesting to note which stock spells are being replicated here. Much as Giant Growth pops up in some form or another in every set, so too do some of these abilities attached to creatures.
We begin our bestiary with the Wispmare, a 1/3 flying body that destroys an enchantment when it enters the battlefield. Fairly inexpensive in its own right, there aren’t many times where you’d want to play this only for invoke, considering in particular that all evoke plays are at sorcery speed. Next up and also in White is the Dawnfluke. With 0 power, the Dawnfluke isn’t the strongest of cards, but it does have flash to allow it to be played as an instant. Along for the ride is a limited Healing Salve effect, which can ward off damage. And that Giant Growth we mentioned? It appears here in the form of Briarhorn. Being in Green, you get the added benefit of increased creature efficiency- Briarhorn is a 3/3 (and can be 6/6 on defense if you use its ability on itself).
Next we find Terror and Divination effects. Shriekmaw brings the former, and while its evoke is priced accordingly its effect is slightly less effective than Terror thanks to the lack of an anti-regeneration clause. The Mulldrifter, however, is right on-cost, making this close to strictly better (barring corner cases like vulnerability to Essence Scatter, it typically is). This trend continues up the chain, giving stronger ETB effects attached to bigger bodies- and with heftier pricetags as well. Need a Boomerang, though one at sorcery speed? Meet Æthersnipe. Mind Rot? Hello, Mournwhelk! Howabout a Stone Rain? Well met, Faultgrinder. What is interesting here is how the costs for these generic spell effects increase as we go. Earlier effects like the Healing Salve and Divination are right on-cost, but each of these latter three have their basic ETB effect inflated by one or more mana.
The deck’s final creature is the second rare, Horde of Notions. Although its cost presents you with something of a challenge, once you can afford it it provides a huge upside even byond what it can offer you in the red zone. As a 5/5, it is your second-largest beatstick, and its raft of special abilities let it punch even more above its weight. Just as intriguing is its activated ability, which lets you play Elemental cards from your graveyard. Those creatures you lost by using evoke get a second chance at life, and your one burn spell (Consuming Bonfire) can be used over and over again, clearing a path for your attackers.
Remove Their Tools
The deck’s noncreature support package is miniscule- a mere three cards (albeit with multiple copies of each). The first is your burn package, which consists of a trio of Consuming Bonfires. Although you’ll encounter few Treefolk in the Lorwyn preconstructed environment, don’t forget that Changelings are considered Treefolk for the purposes of this spell. Even without that bonus, 4 damage is enough to kill most of what you’ll go up against.
The remaining cards help you hit your five-colour stride. A threesome of Wanderer’s Twigs let you pull up the land you need as you need it. This should usually be a Plains or Forest, as you only have one of each in your library. Coming in second are your Swamps and Islands, with two apiece. You also have two Springleaf Drums to help even things out. For a little added assistance, you also have recourse to some nonbasic lands. Two Shimmering Grottos and a Vivid Crag will plug any holes needed to play all of your creatures.
Given the unlikelihood of a five-colour Intro Pack based on current design philosophy, there’s something of a “last of its kind” feel to Elementals’ Path. We’re looking forward to playtesting it as we wrap up our coverage of Lorwyn and move on to Magic 2013. See you in a couple days!