Mercadian Masques: Disrupter Review (Part 1 of 2)
What’s in a name, asked Juliet, in a line that would become nearly as famous as the play itself. Young lovers divided by their warring families, the temptation to cast aside the burden of names must surely have called to Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Had this ended well for them, this might have instead found itself a member of Shakespeare’s lesser works. Instead, a reconciliation is only found once the “star-cross’d lovers” have died, each by their own hands. As it happens, a desire to put aside the baggage of name didn’t end so well for Wizards, either.
To properly understand the significance of Mercadian Masques, it is necessary to look at both the blocks that preceded it, for each contributed in their own way. For theme and story, Mercandian Masques picked up the Weatherlight Saga where Tempest Block had left it, two years before. The crew of the Weatherlight, having escaped the plane of Rath, find themselves on the world of Mercadia. There’s no rest for the weary, however, as they are soon attacked by raiders who steal away with the ship. Strangers in a strange land, things go from bad to worse when soldiers from the capital city, Mercadia City, then show up and arrest them.
That, however, is a tale for another time, for the narrative we’ll be looking at today is concerned with what happened in between: Urza block. In our coverage of the decks of Urza’s Saga, we looked at how it might well have been the most broken year of Magic in the game’s history. As Mark Rosewater frequently relates, it was the only time all of R&D had ever been pulled into the CEO’s office and yelled at. A poor development process was largely to blame, and the fallout was seismic. For one thing, it convinced Wizards that they needed to formalise the development process, setting it apart from design as its own stage of creation. For another, it also made Wizards a bit gun-shy in crafting the successive set.
Just as we would see later with Mirrodin and Champions of Kamigawa, broken cards and competitive bannings in one set lead to a more toned-down approach in the next. Indeed, Mercadian Masques has acquired a lasting and unflattering reputation, immortalised for all time in the flavour text of Bursting Beebles. To what degree that’s deserved will be the subject of the next review as we explore the significance of the opening quote, but for now let’s take a look at the set’s first offering. Disrupter.
Leave Painful Wounds
Taking advantage of many of the set’s cards that essentially become spells-on-a-stick, the early drops of Disrupter are filled with creatures on the smaller end of the power scale, at least as far as their power and toughness go. This is a deck that isn’t seeking to storm in for early damage, but instead wage a war of incremental advantage, looking to outlast and outpace its opponent by throwing obstacles in their path.
The decks’s sole one-drop offering here is a pair of Molting Harpies, and they are fairly underwhelming. An evasive 2/1 for one mana surely requires a drawback, but the Harpy’s is too much to be palatable in all but the slowest of starts. For one thing, assuming you find one in your opening hand, you’ll be tapping out the next turn just to keep her aloft for 2 points of damage. That kind of bargain- trading longer-term power for immediacy- is something both Black and Red like to do in general, but this is the wrong sort of deck for it.
To make that strategy profitable, you need a lot of power-now effects, frontloading your deck to burst right out of the gate. That’s not Disrupter. Taking the example further, assuming you hit your land drop on turn 3, are you willing to hinder yourself once again just for 2 more damage? In fact, turn 3 is the worst time to take such a bargain, because that’s when your land destruction suite turns on, and you really begin to disrupt your opponent’s game plan.
So if that invalidates the Harpy as an optimal early play, the next question asks whether or not she is any better in the mid- to late-game. The answer there is that she’s indeed better, but probably not better enough. If the game has gone according to plan, your opponent’s land, hand, and army are a smoldering ruin, with you well ahead. At this point, it’s probably better to drop a real closer rather than a 2-point nibbler that has to be maintained from turn to turn. Not an auspicious start. The only real upside to the card is that she’s a Mercenary, which means she can be tutored into play later by the Cateran Enforcer if needed.
We find another Mercenary- and our first rare care- amongst the two-drops in the Silent Assassin. At first, the Assassin looks like a steal of a deal, a repeatable kill spell on a stick that can be activated multiple times in a turn (though doing so costs eight mana, it’s worth noting here that the deck packs two Dark Rituals, which can struggle to find purpose later in the game). However, she too wilts a little under closer scrutiny. The kill she offers triggers at end of combat, meaning that the damage has already been dealt. Another way to look at it might be:
That’s still useful, of course- destroying permanents is seldom a bad thing. But that doesn’t make it a bargain. To make the Assassin work, you need to have a creature attack and be blocked. Then, you need their creature to survive combat- otherwise, you don’t need to use the Assassin at all. Given the size of most of your creatures, though, they might not escape that combat themselves, meaning the Assassin’s four-mana ability also puts you down a card (the creature you attacked with). An ability like this would shine in an environment where you had low-power, high-toughness creatures, like the recently-reviewed Treefolk-packed Shamanism from Morningtide. That would present your opponent with much more of a dilemma, and they’d often be tempted to let your creatures in for damage. That’s less the case here. Look to the Silent Assassin to be occasionally useful, but not game-breaking.
The other two cards at this drop slot are both Spellshapers, giving any card in your hand the versatility to be transformed into another iconic spell. The Cackling Witch offers you Howls from Beyond, letting one of your creatures pour on some extra damage in the red zone. The Undertaker, meanwhile, works her magic on the other end, with Raise Deads to shepherd the fallen from your graveyard back to your hand. That’s the kind of card that begs for sacrifice outlets and creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities, to set up recursive loops. That’s not on offer here, though there are the opportunities for similar- if slower- shenanigans with cards like the Cinder Elemental.
Moving up to the three-drops, we find another Spellshaper in the form of the Bog Witch. This Witch gives you Dark Rituals, which are ordinarily associated with blazingly-fast starts. That’s possible here, though it won’t be consistent. Imagine the following chain of events:
- Turn 1: Swamp, Dark Ritual, Bog Witch
- Turn 2: Land, activate Bog Witch, Rain of Tears
Wizards has long since moved past three-mana land destruction, so we might as well enjoy it from its glory days in the past while we can, right? Nothing quite says grief like land destruction has, and played early enough you can gain an almost insurmountable advantage over your opponent. Like:
- Turn 3: Mountain, Stone Rain
That small rumble you hear from the other side of the table? That’s your opponent going on tilt, and that’s the deck working as intended. Disrupter, states the strategy guide, works by making your opponent’s life miserable. Indeed.
Alas, things become a little more pedestrian from there. You get a pair of Deepwood Ghouls, 2/1’s with a life-taxing regeneration. That makes them useful on both attack and defense, but only somewhat situationally if you can’t afford the life loss. Another Mercenary appears here in the form of an Alley Grifters. Like the Silent Assassin, the Grifter’s power comes from creatures being blocked, in this case himself. If the Grifter dies on the first go, that’s not a great tempo play as you and your opponent both lose a card, but only you would have had to have paid for yours first. To get the most from them, you’ll want to see them live for another round or, failing that, taking someone with them to the afterlife.
The deck’s solid core starts to become more evident as we transition to the four-drops. For one thing, we find the deck’s biggest body in the form of an Enslaved Horror. The cost of a cheap Horror is fairly steep, though, in that it gives your opponent a free play from their graveyard. This is great if their graveyard is empty, which is certainly possible if you’ve managed to stunt and stall them at every turn with your disruption. The Red version is here in the form of an Ogre Taskmaster. This Stronghold reprint shaves off a point of toughness and adds a blocking restriction, but otherwise offers you another 4-power body.
Next up we find a Wall of Distortion, which is another spell-on-a-stick. In this case, you essentially get to choose from one of two modes, since the Wall can do one of its two functions- but not both. If you need some defense to hold your opponent at bay, you can keep the Wall up as a 1/3 defender. Alternately, if you have the red zone under control, you can turn the Wall into a repeatable cull of your opponent’s hand. Since you have to use the discard ability as a sorcery, you’ll have a choice to make every turn.
The last two cards offer a bit of Red burn in creature form. The Cinder Elemental, which recently saw reprinting in Planechase (2009) and is in Gatecrash, is a Blaze on a stick (see a pattern?). This gives the deck a tremendous amount of reach across the table, and makes for a very solid finisher even if the 2/2 body is by that point irrelevant. Given the deck’s recursive ability, the Elemental is particularly brutal if you’ve managed to find your Undertaker. Less robust- but cheaper to activate- are your Shock Troops, which is a subtle pun. This 2/2 gives you instant access to 2 points of damage, either for a creature or player. Like the Elemental, they’re extra fun with an Undertaker on the board.
At last we arrive at the top of the creature curve, with a quintet of five-mana creatures. The largest of these (from an offensive standpoint) is your Cateran Enforcer, which has a very useful recruiter ability to help you pull more Mercenaries onto the battlefield. You don’t have a ton of options there though it is a reliable way to find your Silent Assassin. Even more useful in the right circumstances is its fear, which can make it a very potent evasive threat. The last Mercenary appears here in the from of the Primeval Shambler. A 3/3 shade, it grows in power and toughness for every Black mana you pump into it, making those late-game Rituals essentially Giant Growths for this thing.
Next is the Thrashing Wumpus, whose activated Pestilence-like ability can clear the board of smaller fry, or even wipe the board for you (though at the likely expense of itself). It’s not cheap, but again it’s solid Black activation gives you further utility from Rituals and the Bog Witch. Your deck’s second rare, its 3/3 body will also be useful considering the fragility of many of your creatures.
For a little added toughness, there’s also a Henge Guardian- another obscure Masques card that found a second lease on life in a premium reprint (in this case, Duel Decks: Knights vs Dragons). The Guardian is a reasonable body for cost, and can gain trample for a couple mana more. This might not seem game-changing on a 3-power body, but the Cackling Witch is the Henge Guardian’s best mate. Finally, there’s Gerrard’s Irregulars, a 4/2 trampling, hasted beater. Like any high-power creature that can attack as it hits the board, these make a very solid ambush against your opponent.
See the Disease
If the deck’s creature contingent seems a bit unfocused, its noncreature suite is anything but. With laudable focus, the deck narrows in on disruption and removal, and deviates only to throw in a couple of Dark Rituals. The first packs is gloriously-cheap land destruction. With a trio of Stone Rains and pair of Rains of Tears, you’re not going to reliably play this to full effect game after game, but when you draw it early you’ll usually be thrilled you did. Shut an opponent out of a colour, and you’ll often gain more than just a single turn’s-worth of advantage. There’s a reason Wizards won’t print these types of cards at this cost anymore, and that’s a combination of both feel-bads as well as power level.
Done with the land, we now move to your opponent’s hand. A trio of Specter’s Wails are a far cry from the penultimate discard spell, Hymn to Tourach, though their random element can really hit your opponent where it hurts. At the end of the day, though, these are still one-for-one’s, and as we noted above with the Alley Grifters you actually can lose out on the card exchange with your opponent since you’re the one paying mana. For a more economic effect, there’s a copy of Larceny, which turns every creature on the board into a Specter. Although the high mana cost often means your opponent might not have a lot left to lose, your land-kill can help ensure your opponent stands to lose something on your attack.
If, however, they’ve managed to survive having their lands blown up and their hand savaged, they might well think the worst is behind them. Not so! There’s a ton of removal and burn here to round out the rest of the deck, and no creature should consider itself beyond your reach. Vendetta was a feature in Rise of the Eldrazi, and Masques was where it first saw print. In a format filled with fatties, it was an inspired reprinting, and if anything it’s even more lethal here. You get a miser’s copy. Next up are a pair of Snuff Outs, which cost a bit more but give you some flexibility in payment (like Vendetta, with a life component). If the spell sounds familiar, you might recall it too being reprinted in a Duel Deck, this time Garruk vs Liliana. This time, you get two copies.
Next we find a singleton Sever Soul, which stands as a sort of bookend opposite to Vendetta. Like the other removal cards, it won’t let you kill off your own kind (Black), but is useful in every other way. A card this expensive is perfectly fine given the incidental lifegain, since it’s well-supported by cheaper removal. In a pinch, you also get a Maggot Therapy, which has the versatility to be both removal as well as a surprise combat trick and aura, all wrapped into one. Though most of your creatures won’t survive its loving embrace, for some of your larger ones it can be just the ticket to squeeze through that extra bit of damage.
Lastly, there’s a trio of burn cards here to give you some added lethality and range. Lunge is a sort of Searing Blaze antecedent, hitting both your opponent and one of their creatures for 2. You also get a pair of Thunderclaps, which like the Snuff Outs have an alternate non-mana payment that can be made to play them for free. In this case, it’s a Mountain, and that’s often small price to pay (not for nothing, Fireblast is a highly-regarded card). Although Thunderclap is limited by its limited range, it still can take care of a nettlesome creature in a pinch.
As for lands, you get the usual array of basics with a single notable exception- Subterranean Hangar. The Hangar can help fuel some of the Black effects in the deck, but also makes for a useful offset in this otherwise land-light construction (21 lands total). Of course, the next question is to see how well the deck works, and to answer that we’ll need to take it into the field. We’ll be back in two days to render a final verdict on Disrupter!