Return to Ravnica: Selesnya Surge Review (Part 1 of 2)
Like all things, language is subject to change and evolution over time. Words that mean something now may not mean the same thing later, and tracing the origin of words can be an intriguing experience. You don’t have to go back to Greek and Latin to find interesting origin stories- sometimes there’s a story behind the original meaning of a word that’s come to mean something else.
We all know that modern American English has a lot of superlatives- things are “amazing,” or “great,” or “awesome” or “incredible,” and it would take a veteran of the old Marvel Heroes RPG to properly rank those. But looking at awesome, for instance, reveals that it literally means something that inspires awe- and that isn’t necessarily good. Or take “incredible.” At its core, this means literally “something that cannot be believed,” which is quite a bit different from its modern connotation. Our look at Return to Ravnica begins today with a story that is incredible- in both its definitions.
Around two months ago, a player by the name of Bruce Erenberger wandered into his store and picked up a booster of Magic 2013. This in itself was no remarkable event, but what he claimed to have found certainly was. At this time, it was well established what the next set was going to be, but none of the cards or mechanics had yet slipped out of the tight grasp of Wizards of the Coast. So when Erenberger appeared on the scene with a picture of a card he supposedly opened in his M13 booster, a card from Return to Ravnica, well… suffice it to say the online Magic community was fairly skeptical.
It’s not as if there wasn’t just cause. For every “Matignon Godbook” leak of a legitimate card or cards, you get dozens of phonies and spoofs, fake mock-ups intended to hoax the community. Many of these are dreadful and obvious, but as technology improves some very clever counterfeits have surfaced. Erenberger’s claim- finding it in a pack of M13- was hard to believe, and poster after posted lined up on the forums to take a peek at this incredible find. Could it really be?
Much contention focused on the copyright line, which no longer showed a range of years but rather a single date, breaking convention. Surely this was proof of forgery, though others pointed out that a similar type line appeared on Kaijudo products. Others challenged Erenberger to submit the card to any number of card-damaging tests to prove his tale’s authenticity. Could be bend the card, please? Kindly rip it into pieces and take pictures of the torn edging? Perhaps sir could set it aflame?
In the end, Erenberger drew the line at destroying the card, but took to the forums to accommodate those wanting a closer look. Despite the skeptics, in the end he was vindicated- Wizards of the Coast asked him to send them the card, and he duly obliged. He was well-rewarded for his troubles- the card was pronounced genuine, and more than a few had a plate of crow served to them over their natural skepticism. Lead Designer Erik Lauer even signed Erenberger’s card, then Wizards sent it back with a Selesnya banner signed by all of the Design and Development teams.
That card- Rootborn Defenses- tells you much of what you need to know about Selesnya Surge. First of all- no surprises here- it’s a combat deck, filled with creatures that thrive in the red zone. This is a common archetype with a Green/White foundation, and combat tricks like this one are de rigeur. Second, the guild’s keyword which appears here (populate) indicates that creature tokens will play a critical role. Looking at a single card, we now have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Words of War
The deck begins humbly enough with the M13 reprint, Arbor Elf. As evident in the above mana curve, there’s a fair amount of fat here- and not all of it visible. Ramp options like this will always be welcome. The other two cards in this slot are your 0/1 Centaur’s Heralds. Unimpressive on their own, they nevertheless act as placeholders for your first creature tokens, 3/3 Centaurs. It’s a curious effect, particularly given how useless 0/1 bodies tend to be, but they can upgrade themselves at instant speed, and even reduce some incoming damage by acting as chump-blockers first.
Some of that ’hidden fat’ hinted at above comes to us by way of the next card, the Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage. The first of the pair of two-drops, both of the Guildmage’s abilities are quite strong in the deck, but neither of them are particularly cheap. Notably, she’s a one-card combo engine, making a 3/3 Centaur token one turn then populating it the next. As we’ll see, the 3/3 Centaurs are hardly the most impressive creature token she’ll have a chance to work with. The other creature here is the Brushstrider, a 3/1 with vigilance. Although the 1 toughness makes it especially fragile, you have more than a few options to help keep it alive longer than its lack of hardiness might portend.
Things begin to blossom at the three-drop slot. For starters, there’s a trio of Centaur Coursers to contend with, a simple, vanilla three-mana 3/3. Return to Ravnica offers its version with a slight twist in the Centaur Healer. In return for being slightly harder to cast, it brings 3 life along with it to give you a small boost. We also find another token generator in the Seller of Songbirds, who brings along a 1/1 Bird token. Although much reduced in stature from the Centaur tokens, the evasion is designed to give you an alternate way to win. If the ground game gets congested, there’s always the skies to fall back on.
The deck’s final three-drop is your first rare, the Wayfaring Temple. Another one-card synergy package like the Guildmage, the Temple increases your army while at the same time growing stronger from its ever greater numbers. Although the lack of trample makes it somewhat less of a threat, it won’t take long for its three-mana body to present a real bargain in terms of size, and free creature tokens whenever it manages to damage your opponent can help shift the balance firmly in your favour.
Next up we find a pair of four-drops in the Healer of the Pride and Phantom General. The Healer is another M13 card, and one that synergises well with the deck considering how often you’ll have creatures entering the battlefield. By the same token (ha!), the Phantom General offers a Crusade-style effect for all of the creature tokens the deck produces. A 2/3 body is a bit underwhelming for four mana, but the effect it carries more than makes up the difference.
Finally, we come to the top of the deck’s mana curve, where another pair of creatures await. Both cost seven mana, and both pack a serious punch. The Axebane Stag is a colossal 6/7, and while it brings along no extra abilities it nevertheless is fairly simple to cast. The Risen Sanctuary, larger still, is a bit trickier with two different colours of mana required, but in all but the worst cases you should be able to reliably cast it if the game goes long enough.
That’s a total of seventeen creatures, which is somewhat on the lighter side for a creature-focused deck- at least on first blush. That’s because Selesnya Surge has a number of other cards that generate creatures all their own, mostly- but not entirely- in the form of the tokens critical to the success of the deck.
Prayers of Peace
The first five cards of the noncreature suite do precisely that, and are creature spells themselves in all but name. The Call of the Conclave is the updated version of the ever-popular Watchwolf from the original Ravnica, offering another way to bring a 3/3 Centaur onboard. Coursers’ Accord is quite a bit more expensive, but at the minimum you can get a pair of Centaur tokens from it if you have nothing better in play since it populates after making the initial token. Finally, Eyes in the Skies supports the minor evasion subtheme with a few more opportunities to get wings in the air to supplement the boots on the ground.
Almost anything can be harnessed for the Selesnya war effort, including artifacts and even land! A pair of Selesnya Keyrunes offer you some mana ramping where needed, and some 3/3 muscle otherwise for a small mana investment. The deck’s foil rare appears here in the form of the Grove of the Guardian. The first land card ever to occupy an Intro Pack’s premium spot, the Grove lives up to its billing by offering the scintillating prospect of populating an 8/8 creature token. Although it is not cheaply obtained, the fact that you can crack the Grove for the Elemental at the end of your opponent’s turn rather than at sorcery speed makes sure that unleashing the card’s full potential doesn’t tie up your creatures and leave you open to attack.
The deck’s remaining cards break down into the usual and customary fare for this type of deck. The suite of combat tricks are the most robust, giving you the expected effects to turn combat into an unpredictable prospect for your opponent. There’s not one, but two different pump spells, with two copies of each at your disposal. Savage Surge is an updated Veteran’s Reflexes in Green, costing twice as much but giving double the combat bonus. Less static is the Chorus of Might, which not only gives your chosen creature a (potentially large) bonus but also bestows trample- just the thing for swinging in with one of your 8/8 creatures, token or otherwise.
Druid’s Deliverance is the latest incarnation of a staple card archetype, which fuses a new ability on a stock card type. Here we find the Selesnyan guild mechanic, populate fused onto a Fog-like effect for only one additional mana. Although in general we’re not fond of casual sprinklings of Fog effects since they do little to advance your board state, Deliverance is nevertheless a solid- if conditional- value. The final trick up your sleeve is the storied Rootborn Defenses, with which we opened the piece. Again thanks to populate this card has uses above its simple combat effect, and importantly the card is structured so that you get the token first. This ensures that it, too, gains the benefit of indestructibility. Similarly conditional, it can nab you the occasional blowout effect as trades in the red zone become one-sided affairs.
Next we find a minor lifegain package in the form of a pair of Bountiful Harvests and a Heroes’ Reunion (a reprint from Invasion). Since lifegain does nothing to solve any problems you’re encountering on the battlefield and doesn’t advance your board state in any appreciable way, it tends to be a somewhat underwhelming option. This is further reinforced by the contrast in options here. For lifegain to be worth the risk of running, it has to be simple, flexible, and highly fruitful. These attributes certainly describe the Reunion, a two-mana instant. Consider, though, that to get the same benefit out of the Harvests, you have to have played seven lands- and only after you tie up five of your lands during your own main phase. All three are easy cuts for any streamlining, but the Harvests are much easier and more satisfying ones to make than the lone Reunion.
Finally, we come to the deck’s removal suite. Brace yourself- all you’re getting here are a pair of six-mana Trostani’s Judgments. This means you’ll have almost no way at all to eliminate any threat your opponent plays unless they choose to engage you in creature combat. Nettlesome utility creatures will be almost entirely safe from your reach, so the most effective course of action is to simply bring so much pressure to bear that your opponent is forced to play on the back-foot.
It’s worth noting that the deck also carries with it a Selesnya Guildgate, a common dual land. As we delve deeper into the set we’ll explore the ramifications of the Gates, though with no cards in this deck that care about it that’s a tale for another time. We’ve enjoyed our look at the updated Selesnyan deck, and can’t wait to test it out. We’ll be back in two days with a look at how well it performed. See you then!