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19
Jul

Magic 2011: Reign of Vampirism Review (Part 2 of 2)

In our last review, we took Reign of Vampirism out for a spin, and it performed admirably in no small part to the strength of drawing the premium foil, Captivating Vampire, early and often. Of course, being a singleton it’s hard to rely on such fortune, but it’s useful to break down the rest of the deck and see what results can be expected with consistency. As we’ll see, the deck is solid in that particular regard, but has some gaping flaws in its design.

As discussed in yesterday’s opinion piece, Vampires have been retooled and reconfigured for Magic starting with M10 and Zendikar. No longer the occasional bomby rare, they have shoved past Zombies and claimed the mantle of Black’s tribal champions. That said, they occupy a similar place on the ‘food chain,’ of sorts, now recast as fast, aggressively costed and typically smallish creatures designed for an aggro rush, and Reign of Vampirism showcases this to good effect.

Party of Five

To take advantage of Captivating Vampire’s steal-a-beater ability, five Vampires need to be in play, and Reign nudges the odds in its favour with a wide array of them: 65% of the creatures selected are Vampires. Revealingly, if you exclude 4-drops and above, the percentage spikes to just over 81%. Fine math, but what does it mean? Let’s take a look at the curve chart:

Reign leads off with a trio of Viscera Seers, one-drop Vampires whose ability- requiring the sacrifice of a creature- should almost exclusively be used in conjunction with the pair of Reassembling Skeletons. But it’s at the two- and three-drop slots that the bulk of the creature swarm is located.

Consistency is unusually valued in this deck: witness the three copies each of Bloodthrone Vampire (another synergy with the Skeletons), Child of Night, and Barony Vampire. These aren’t the ultra-aggressive Vampires of Zendikar (think Vampire Lacerator), but they’re fast if fragile and should be able to get you out ahead early.

The last two early creatures are more utility-based. In addition to the aforementioned Captivating Vampire, there’s also a Royal Assassin who’s as much a deterrent as anything. There are not a lot of big beaters in the deck, and it works best with an early Swarm strategy. The Captivating Vampire’s requirement, though, means that you’ll be handling Weenie creatures with greater than usual care. Trades are typically not to your benefit, and you may need to let your life total run down a bit avoiding losing your precious Vampires to blocking.

Assisting you in that regard are the few reasonable beaters the deck offers: two Howling Banshees, a Giant Spider and a Spined Wurm. The Giant Spider- typically somewhat of a defensive choice- isn’t necessarily out of place here, as a four-toughness blocker can thicken up the red zone, buying you precious time to find the Captivating Vampire and bring four additional Vampires online.

Once you do, the game should be ending very quickly in your favour.

Towards That End…

Unusually for Black, Reign’s suite of noncreature spells is a bit light on the removal, but for the most part does seem to have been selected with some care. Almost everything is in support of your Vampire-centric strategy, and should be used accordingly. The lone Giant Growth, for instance, makes the customarily fine combat trick (and ersatz removal), but often can serve a nobler purpose of keeping your Captivating Vampire safe from Lightning Bolts, Last Kisses, and anything else that threatens his ability to make a living. Should he succumb, a Nature’s Spiral and two Rise from the Graves ensure that the cause is not lost. And should drawing into him elude you, a pair of Diabolic Tutors give you ways to find him.

As for the removal suite, use them with care- there aren’t many. Two Doom Blades are the only instant-speed kill the deck boasts, while a pair of Quag Sicknesses and Corrupts round out the package. Corrupt is a welcome addition due to its ability to serve double-duty as direct damage to your opponent, though its effectiveness is somewhat hampered by the fact that Reign is a two-coloured deck. Corrupt is a very greedy spell which works best in mono-Black.

Quag Sickness, too, suffers from the same limitation, though it occupies a curious design space. Given the nature of the spell, it may well linger for a time on an opponent’s beater until you’re able to reach enough Swamps to make it lethal. On the upside, it gets around the limitation of Doom Blade, as it doesn’t care about the colour of its target. On the downside, it’s less effective against Green, White, and Blue (the first two because of enchantment removal, the latter because of bounce). Naturalize and Cultivate offer a splash of customary Green utility.

The deck’s lone artifact, Sorcerer’s Strongbox, is dreadful but can be a rationalised by the fact that Weenie decks tend to blow through their cards early, so even a run of bad luck with the Strongbox isn’t as painful as it might be for other decks. It is, however, still dreadful.

When taken together, the deck’s curve fills out a little bit more:

Analysis

Because of the high amount of card repetition relative to other preconstructed decks, Reign of Vampirism should offer a reasonably consistent playing experience. Dump a swarm of Weenies out early for some quick damage, retrench and use selective removal to stagnate the board, all the while looking to get out four Vampires and the Captivating one, either through direct draw or by tutoring. Steal creatures, and bring the game to an end. 

This is Reign’s most effective win condition, but backups exist in the form of the larger creatures and the Corrupts. If things are going pear-shaped, hope to draw some removal and kill something you can then animate. It should go without saying, though, that the deck’s odds are considerably diminshed if the Camptivating Vampire long eludes you.

If there is a grievance I have with the deck, it is with the colour selection. Reign really wants to be mono-Black, and there’s very little Green offers it here: two whole creatures, a trio of lesser utility cards and a nifty combat trick neatly summarise Green’s contribution, while at the same time it throttles out the growth potential of Black’s removal suite like a weed in a garden. Whenever Wizards releases a preconstructed deck utilising opposing colours, I always sit up and take notice, because such combinations can lead to fun and unusual combinations. In this deck, it feels like a forced tack-on to avoid making a mono deck (not an unreasonable desire, given that both Zendikar and Worldwake had mono-Black offerings), which is probably what it was. Compare this to the Ears of the Elves deck, which was the inverse (Green splashed with Black) and by contrast felt very well integrated both thematically and mechanically.

Pros: Consistent play though use of multiples; solid synergy (multiple sac effects with Reassembling Skeleton, strong Vampires presence for Captivating Vamp’s special ability); mana curve ensures ease of deployment; stealing things is fun

Cons: Removal cards underperform in multi-coloured environment; Green feels “tacked on”; Captivating Vampire’s ability forces possible overcommit of forces which can be vulnerable to sweepers; removal a bit weak; Sorcerer’s Strongbox

FINAL GRADE: 3.5/5.0

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17
Jul

Magic 2011: Reign of Vampirism Review (Part 1 of 2)

Just when you thought it was safe to tap out after dark, Magic 2011 brings us yet another Vampire-themed preconstructed deck in the Black/Green Reign of Vampirism.

Both Zendikar-block Vampires decks (Rise of the Vampires and Fangs of the Bloodchief) relied on fast, Black Weenie-style tactics with low casting-cost critters to overwhelm the opponent before they established board position, with a couple aces for the endgame to break through a stalemate (such as Anowon, the Butcher, Zombie Goliath, and Blood Tribute).

Vampires in the Zendikar world were a carefully-crafted tribe with a deep backstory and vital role to play in the world’s lore. By nature the Core Sets are devoid of such placement, and exist more or less on their own. To see how M11’s Vampires fared, I suited up for battle against Sam, who was piloting Power of Prophesy, the set’s U/W theme pack.

Game One

With turns one and two passing with nothing but land to show for it, I’m growing worried that I’m off to a slow start. This favours Sam, whose deck needs a little time and space to get going, but is an omen of doom for mine. Sam’s on the play and her turn 2 drop is a Blinding Mage. I have no answer.

The Mage attacks on turn three and draws first blood, but I’m able to hit that third land drop that enables me to play a Barony Vampire. She’ll be able to tap it down for attacking, but it’s a start. Sam returns with a Visions-reprint Cloud Elemental.

The Elemental can only stand by uselessly as I drop my foil premium rare, Captivating Vampire. The +1/+1 is greedily welcomed by my attacking Barony Vampire, and just like that I’m ahead, 16-19.

Now entering turn 5, Sam draws, attacks with the Elemental, and passes. I keep the pressure on with a Viscera Seer and Child of Night. Although her next turn play is solid- the foil Conundrum Sphinx, I draw into a Bloodthrone Vampire and just like that I’ve got five Vampires on the board for the Captivating Vampire’s special ability. The Conundrum Sphinx is ‘persuaded’ to join the winning team, and Sam’s prospects for victory are rapidly diminishing.

A turn 7 Sleep buys her a little more time. My play is the detested Sorcerer’s Strongbox, which I can’t activate this turn having only 5 mana available. Sam stalls again with a Wall of Frost, which I also relieve her of. A Quag Sickness takes care of the pesky Blinding Mage, and Sam’s fate is soon sealed.

Game Two

An early start this game sees me with a Viscera Seer and Bloodthrone Vampire in the first two turns, while Sam looks to gain card quality advantage through a Crystal Ball played on turn 3. My take is a risk- a solid start, but I have expensive cards in hand (Diabolic Tutor, Corrupt), and the Captivating Vampire I again find myself with is stuck for lack of one more mana. With the Crystal Ball filtering her draws, I know I don’t have the luxury of time.

I’m further set back on turn 4, when Sam’s Aether Adept bounces the Bloodthrone Vampire to my hand. My Vampires have done a little damage to Sam, but I can barely afford the regroup. I recast the Bloodthrone and hope for the best.

Sam keeps her momentum going with an Augury Owl, the new Sage Owl variant, but I hit a bit of luck and draw a Forest. The Captivating Vapire comes down, and my newly-pumped minions rush in for 4. Sam’s now at 13 life, I’m in good shape with 18.

A Water Servant complicates matters when Sam casts it on turn 6. With the ability to pump in either direction (to a point), it can easily hold off my smaller Vampires though the threat of an attrition I cannot afford. I enchant it with Quag Sickness, and with two Swamps in play it’s now a 1/2- much more manageable. Not to be outdone, Sam drops a fresh Water Servant the next turn, and I’m back where I started. Still, I drop a Barony Vampire, my fourth on the table.

Turn 8 arrives, and Sam draws into a Solemn Offering. Just like that, my Quag Sickness is undone, and her next attack sees me to 11 life. Again, though, I break her back when my 5th Vampire is played- a turn 8 Barony Vampire, and in quick succession I steal my way through to win, with a final Giant Growth seeing the job done.

Game Three

“I wouldn’t worry,” I say to Sam as we begind drawing our opening hands, “I doubt I’ll even see the Captivating Vampire this time, I’m already ahead of the odds getting him off twice.”

And for three turns, I’m actually right. I draw him on my fourth turn, having already played the game’s only critter thus far, another Viscera Seer. Sam’s turn 3 play is a Wall of Frost, and things start to look like a repeat as I cast a Barony Vampire and the Captivating Vampire the turn following. Looking at the arsenal in my hand, I suspect Sam’s in for a quick loss.

She’s surprised when turn 5 brings me a Spined Wurm (a reprint from my much-beloved Tempest), and when I Doom Blade her Wall and storm in the next turn for 13, she’s in real trouble.

But Sam’s had some time to finagle with her deck, casting an Augury Owl, Foresee, and Jace’s Ingenuity to filter and refresh her hand. The turn 7 Sleep is a lifesaver, which she follows up with a Scroll Thief. She Sleeps me again on turn 8, netting a free card from the attacking Thief (alongside the Owl, who’s now pecked me twice). All I can do is lay down a Socerer’s Strongbox, but I catch a break and crack it on the first try.

But the damage has been done. Sam’s stalling has robbed me of the overwhelming momentum I had in the midgame, being one attack away from certain victory. And now she’s put some defenders in place: Maritime Guard, Water Servant, and a Cloud Elemental now stare back across at me. While Sam’s at 6 life, she’s well-entrenched, and my best recourse now is either to wear her down with waves of attacks, or find another way to her. When I draw a Diabolic Tutor on turn 9, I know it’s now my chance. I cast it, and go fishing.

Turn 10 sees more stalling from Sam as she plays another Foresee and drops a Blinding Mage down. I surprise her with a Howling Banshee. The 3/3 body is welcome but not all that helpful; her enters-the-battlefield ability, however, is. Now clinging to three life, Sam throws out an Air Servant, but has no answer when I untap and cast the Corrupt that I tutored for, for four damage. Just like that, it’s a sweep.

A Little Bit of Luck

I certainly was the beneficiary of good fortune in these three games, I don’t want to give the idea that the Power of Prophesy is a cakewalk, but having the Captivating Vampire out for each of the three games (while she drew into her Sphinx just the once, and promptly had it stolen) lends to a one-sided appearance. Still, as we’ll see in the next post, the deck is indeed designed to get the Captivating fellow out early, and is built around him. Join me in just two days as we break the deck apart and see for ourselves!

15
Jul

Magic 2011: Power of Prophecy Review (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back! When last we left, the Blue/White M11 preconstructed deck was showing that, indeed, there really was some power behind its prophecy, and in this session we’ll be taking a look at exactly how it’s accomplishing that.

Generally speaking, when one thinks of “Blue/White,” it brings to mind slow, control-based strategies. As with the Tapout model in Standard at present that’s not always the case, and Power of Prophecy takes the latter approach- mainly through filling the skies with a swarm of evasive beaters. Indeed, it follows to the letter the seeming M11 precon formula, which has surprisingly little deviation over the five decks:

Two colours

20 creatures

15 noncreature spells

16 primary colour land

9 support colour land

Naturally, there is a lot of room for individuality within each deck, and its relative strength or weakness is contingent upon how well the cards selected fill the role they’ve been slotted for. Let’s begin with the beaters.

Aim High

One of the strengths of the deck is its consistency- it boasts one of the most stable mana curves of any yet reviewed:

What does this mean? Mainly, that you shouldn’t experience creatures bottlenecking in your hand all that often, provided you have a reasonable amount of land plays throughout the game. More than once I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how smooth a ride the deck can be.

That being said, not every card is a winner, but they’ve all a role to play, and most seem to be adequate for the task. Utility critters take up the 2-drop spot, featuring a pair of Augury Owls for deck manipulation, a Blinding Mage, and a pair of Maritime Guards. The Guards aren’t proper utility at first blush, but you can be sure that the main job of an early 1/3 critter is to buy you time and blunt any early rush the enemy puts up.

There’s more utility where that came from at the 3-drop spot: a pair of bouncers in the form of Aether Adepts gain some tempo in the early game, and can be useful throughout. A Wall of Frost is another speedbump, and the Scroll Thief is there for card advantage. But here we also begin to see our beaters: a pair of Cloud Elementals herald what’s to come.

Conundrum Sphinx- the foil premium rare- is in good company at the four-drop spot. While the offensive power of the Azure Drake is a bit underwhelming, his toughness does recommend him as either an attacking option or able defender. Add in a pair of versatile Water Servants, capable of turning into a 6/1 when some muscle is needed, and up to a 0/7 on defense, and you have reasonable answers to most combat situations.

One key thing to look for in a card is versatility- it’s why the Charm spells are so popular, and why I rate even spells like Stabbing Pain higher than they might first appear. The more things you can do with a particular card, the more valuable that card becomes. Being versatile doesn’t make a card great on its own- if it lets you choose from three different crap effects, it’s still a crap card. But it does make a card more valuable in its position, and Water Servant easily fits this bill.

As for the Sphinx, in Power of Prophecy it’s probably best to look at him as what he’ll be most of the time: an ultra-efficient beater. With few Scry options in the deck (two Owls, two Foresees, and a singleton Crystal Ball), chances are you’ll be naming “Island” every time it attacks, and occasionally getting lucky- just as your opponent will after they catch on.

Also offering some versatility is Water Servant’s equally indentured cousin, Air Servant. On its own it’s a 4/3 flyer for five mana, which isn’t dreadful, but it also packs a very keen dose of utility in its semi-Twiddle ability. Note too that it does not require the Servant to tap and thus can be used multiple times in a turn, and should the skies clog up you still have a way to get through for damage.

Armored Cancrix is nothing sexy, but is included in the deck to act as a wall with teeth. Not a very good card, I have not yet had an opportunity to be delighted when I drew it. The last two critters, though, are anything but mundane.

As a singleton 6-drop, the Harbor Serpent will be coming out neither early nor often, but you shouldn’t find its limitation to be too much of an impediment by the time you’re looking to play it. The deck’s other rare- a Stormtide Leviathan- is a must-deal-with card for your opponent. Not only is it an ultra-efficient beater (8/8 for 8 is right on the all-singing, all-dancing curve), but it also boasts none of the drawbacks that usually torpedo big Blue beaters (remember this guy?).

As with all the decks, noncreature spells take a solid backseat to the critters, acting more as secondary support. Although not the most glorious lineup of cards, Power of Prohpecy’s beaters acquit themselves quite well when taken as a unit, with a solid curve and good versatility. How do the other spells stand up?

Get Thee Behind Me

Sadly, with a few breakout exceptions, overall the complement is underwhelming. The removal suite is almost nonexistent- one copy each of Condemn and Pacifism means that your creatures will be doing most of the talking for you. It offers a couple of mediocre combat tricks (Mighty Leap and Safe Passage, though the former has a dose of added versatility with the evasiveness it temporarily grants). Two Negates and a Solemn Offering offer some utility, and a Mind Control can be a very swingy two-for-one.

The aforementioned Foresees and a pair of Jace’s Ingenuity, while not inexpensive, give you some much-needed library manipulation and card drawing, and can be the difference in close games (as an aside, for an outstanding article on the mothership about the design and synergy of the Planeswalker’s spells, see this one). But the consistent all-star of the deck for me was Sleep, and the deck offers two.

At four mana, you’ll want to be holding onto one of these for a special occasion, but it can be a gamewinner if timed correctly. Optimally, you’ll want to cast it when the sum of all the power of all your creatures, except your largest one (unless it’s evasive), equals half the life total of your opponent. In other words, assume they’ll be able to cast a chump blocker on their next turn and at least have something to defend with. Cast in this way, you should be able to get in for lethal the turn after you play it.

Of course, games seldom run as planned, and it also makes a fine play to give yourself some breathing room to establish board position for a turn (at 4 mana, you probably won’t be casting too much else that turn).

Final Thoughts

I’m not all that excited about the noncreature spell complement with Power of Prohpecy, but as many times as I’ve played it it usually does just fine with its well-balanced creature lineup. When assessing the board and planning your tactics, you can’t count on drawing into removal, so plan accordingly. That aside, the beaters are for the most part fun and effective, and even if you can’t optimise Conundrum Sphinx, the guessing game can still be good for a laugh (in one game my opponent- on the verge of dying the following turn- flipped over the Fireball that would have given him the game). Like Blades of Victory, the deck is a noteable improvement over last year’s offerings, and well worth picking up.

FINAL GRADE: 4.5/5.0

13
Jul

Magic 2011: Power of Prophecy Review (Part 1 of 2)

 

As I recall it, my first ever Magic deck (going waaaay back, here) was a Blue/White hundred-card monstrosity, and from the beginning, though I’ve strayed away from the Combination (White in particular), I’ve had a soft spot for that flavour of deck.

The Blue/White offering for Magic 2011 is Power of Prophecy, and although we typically equate Control (or more recently, Tapout) with this spectrum of deck, Wizards tends to construct a precon that finds its sweet spot somewhere in the middle. In the past year we’re seen Worldwake’s Flyover, which used a lot of flyers in conjunction with Archon of Redemption for skies aggression and lifegain. Also in the mold was Rise’s Leveller’s Glory, which went for a more balanced White Weenie approach with some Blue support.

To see how Power of Prophecy ranked amongst its predecessors, I took it to battle against Jimi, who lined up behind the Rise of Vampirism deck.

Game One

On the play, Jimi opens her first three turns with a good mix of land, a Child of Night, and a Barony Vampire, looking to establish an aggressive board position. I take advantage of a turn 2 Augury Owl to Scry my deck, which dies blocking the Child of Night on turn 3, but does set up my next play of a Cloud Elemental.

My claim to the skies is strengthened with a turn 4 Azure Drake, temporarily neutralising the threat her 3/2 Vampire is posing (though it’s already bloodied me once).

Jimi appears to hit a bit of an impasse on the next turn, and she casts Diabolic Tutor to look for an answer. I swing in with the Drake/Elemental tag team, and pass. Unsurprisingly, the Captivating Vampire she Tutored hits the table next round, and just like that my Drake defender is outclassed.

I’ve got a Harbor Serpent in my hand, and could use the beefy body on the board, but by now I’d expect any Black/x deck to have some removal. Instead, I cast an Armored Cancrix, gambling that she will look to remove the roadblock and return to profitable aggression.

It works. I give silent thanks to the lobster taking a Doom Blade for the team, and drop the Serpent on turn 7. Our attacks have kept pace, though, as we’re tied at 8 life apiece. With the Drake and Elemental tapped from whittling down her life, I’m gambling now that she won’t attack unprofitably, but that’s what she does on turn 8, sending the Capitvating and Barony Vampires in. Killing one I’m down to 6 life, and Jimi ends the game with a 6-point Corrupt.

Her timing is perfect, I’d drawn a Sleep and was intending to use it to close the game out the next turn.

Game Two

This game starts as before, with some land dropping out and me laying down a timely, turn 2 Augury Owl. I’ve long been a believer in the Sage Owl, and this one certainly qualifies as “new and improved.” No more stuffing crap to your bottom draws and having to eat through it in a couple turns; Scry lets you flush the bad draws to the bottom of your library.

Jimi’s turn 2 response is a Viscera Seer. The Owl goes into the red zone on turn 3, then I play a Scroll Thief, while Jimi changes the board with a Captivating Vampire. Turn 4 is a wash- the Azure Drake I lay out is welcome, but neutralised by her answering Giant Spider. My Cloud Elemental on turn 5 is matched by her Barony Vampire, and she Naturalizes my turn 6 Crystal Ball. Fun!

Still, I’m able to engage the Ball once on the way out, and it nets me a gem: Sleep. I cast it next turn and go all in, taking her from 17 to 11, then again the next turn down to 5. A bit underrated, Sleep can be a serious closer if you’ve even a moderate board position to work with. I add an Air Servant to my arsenal on turn 8, and Jimi’s lone Giant Spider isn’t enough to keep my flyers from coming in for victory.

Game Three

I begin the final match advancing some merfolk: the Maritime Guard on turn 2, followed by the Scroll Thief. Jimi lands a Barony Vampire, but surprises on turn 4 with an unexpected (and unwelcome) Howling Banshee. We both lose 3 life (and I’ve already taken 3 from her Vampire), but more importantly she’s got a presence in the air she hasn’t had the past two matches. My turn 4 response is an Azure Drake, which does nothing but add to a stalemate.

I can only chuckle with sympathy as Jimi plays one of M11’s truly heartbreaking cards, Sorcerer’s Strongbox. I’ve won the flip on the first go many times with the card, but never when I truly needed it. I break the impasse, however, with an Air Servant, whose tapping ability will clear the Banshee out.

The next turn, Jimi once again lucks into playing the Captivating Vampire. My own foil premium, the Conundrum Sphinx, is in my grip, and while I’d enjoy taking him for a spin, I see a stronger victory condition in hand. Sleep once more breaks the red zone wide open, and my beaters flood in for full advantage. Jimi’s at 15 life, and I’m attacking with 8-power of creatures. Without any change to her board position she’s finished the next turn, and throws her lot in with the Sorcerer’s Strongbox.

She loses the flip. Then the game.

Thoughts

There was a lot to like in the performance of Power of Prophecy. While the Sphinx/Scry gimmick is a nice bonus, with a singleton Sphinx you’ll seldom take full advantage (hint: absent Scry, name your highest-used land). But then, it scarcely needed it. The beaters seem to be on a solid mana curve, as I didn’t have any problem getting them out as needed and at pace. And Scry may well turn out to be a momentarily underrated mechanic. When previewing the set, I thought it nice but not game-changing. My opinion has swung upwards, and with cards like the Crystal Ball and the Owl upgrade, chatter is already coming in from the Prereleases that Scry punches above its weight.

Can one expect comparable results from Power on a consistent basis, though? Join me next time as we deconstruct the deck and explore every card. Thanks as always for reading!

11
Jul

Magic 2011: Blades of Victory Review (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back to our kickoff review of the Magic 2011 Intro Packs! For those unaware, Wizards heeded the outcry from the community and has reinstated the 60-card deck Intro Pack, complete with booster, rather than the somewhat short-lived 41-card model. This means, of course, that you will be seeing your premium foil rare a bit less often (as well as any other singletons), but that by adding duplicate cards the overall consistency of the deck should remain about the same (for example, the Breath of Fire deck packs in three Lightning Bolts… chances are, you can rely upon drawing at least one in a game).

To start us off, we took a look at Blades of Victory, a White Weenie deck with a twist of Black thrown in for removal. Despite a few misgivings in card selection, it had a solid look about it, and to test it out I went up against the Sam-piloted Stampede of Beasts deck. How did it do?

Game One

On the play, I make my first mistake of the game not shipping my hand, instead keeping one with perhaps one Land too many to start off with. Sam gets out early with a turn 2 Sylvan Ranger, which replaces itself in her hand with a land. My turn 3 Palace Guard looms large to hold back this colossal 1/1 threat, and even the Sacred Wolf she answers with is no match for the mighty 1/4.

Although seemingly mana-flooded (I would not miss a land drop for the entire 10-turn game), I am able to get a potent body out on turn 5 with a Serra Angel. While Sam used turn 4 to Cultivate, on 5 she drops a Llanowar Elves and Prized Unicorn. The Elves are mana ramp- nothing I can really do about that- but the Unicorn troubles me. With the dismal situation with my hand after all these land draws, I know I need to protect what little I manage to get out. The Angel’s demise is but a Giant Growth away, as she can do nothing to avoid blocking that Unicorn, so on turn 6 I swallow hard and Pacify it. The Angel draws first blood for 4, and we’re off.

Sam’s turn 6 gets a little more robust- another Llanowar Elves, paired this time with a Garruk’s Packleader. Next turn I Mind Rot her (she throws away a Runeclaw Bear and, somewhat concerningly, a Giant Spider), leaving two cards in hand. One of them is a Protean Hydra, which she elects to play as a 7/7. I sense danger starting to mount.

I attack with the Angel a third time on turn 8 (Sam’s now down to 8), but Sam topdecks a Chandra’s Outrage and burns it out of the sky. She swings in with the Hydra and Packleader, and I chump with the Palace Guard, taking some Trample damage in the process.

I draw my card on turn 9, sigh, and pass the turn. Siezing the opportunity, Sam drops Overwhelming Stampede and comes in for the alpha strike.

A quick aside on the hideousness of that card. Although for simplicity’s sake I write that we ‘roll’ to see who gets to choose to play or draw first, we actually already have it predetermined before the first game. When starting a playtest session, we play a warm-up game (we call it a ‘friendly’) which doesn’t get recorded (and for which we do, in fact, roll). Loser then gets the luxury of choice for the first of three ‘official’ games.

In our friendly game prior to this one, Sam had a Duskdale Wurm in play, along with a few other gadabouts and hangers-on. Although it looked like I might be able to pull the game off, Sam sealed the deal by Giant Growthing her 7/7 Wurm, then casting the Stampede. As my ragtag army looked downfield and saw 90-power’s worth of beating enter the red zone (all of her creatures gained +10/+10 and Trample), I can only imagine they soiled themselves as the cause was lost between a thunderous trampling of hooves and claws. The card is a monster, be warned.

This time, I cackle in triumph- I had just drawn a Safe Passage, and narrowly avoid a second hideous beating. But it’s a token victory, for having no answer to her next strike I can only concede.

Game Two

The next match immediately looks more promising, as I open with an Infantry Veteran then drop another Palace Guard on turn 3. Sam plays a turn 2 Runeclaw Bear, and we begin trading attacks (using the Veteran to pump up the Guard means that Sam cannot profitably trade, and she realises this). Turn 4 sees Sam with another Prized Unicorn, and a Spined Wurm on the turn following.

I have answers in my hand, though, in the form of a Doom Blade and a Pacifism. In a move that would come to haunt me, I drop the slower of the two on the Wurm to neutralise it, saving the Blade for later. We’re still whittling each other down, but when her Unicorn and Bear are joined by a Giant Spider on turn 6, I call and end to ground operations and play a timely turn 7 Serra Angel.

Sam’s response is devastating. She casts Fling, and opts to sacrifice the Pacified Wurm, smoking the Angel. The Doom Blade in my hand is small consolation (and indeed, is shortly burned to kill her thrun 8 Yavimaya Wurm). It was a backbreaking play, and having passed midgame and into endgame with no appreciable threat, Sam’s able to get there with a couple profitable attacks and closes with a perfectly-timed Lava Axe.

Game Three

Third time looks to be the charm, as I ship my first hand having learned the lessons of the first two games (although now as bad as the first game, I certainly drew into more land than I would have liked in the second). My gambit is rewarded with a delicious grip, including the deck’s actual “combo” of Ajani’s Pridemate and Mantra. What luck!

The Pridemate comes down on the second turn, followed by the Mantra. Sam, seeing the link, breaks it with Back to Nature before I’m able to gain any life, but I’m still carrying a ton of momentum. While Sam still hasn’t played a critter by turn 4, I drop down a White Knight and the War Priest of Thune. By now I’ve figured out that Sam’s deck has little to no enchantments in it, so no need to hang on to the Priest as I have before.

Things seem to be going my way, and moreso on turn turn 5 when I come in with the Knight, the Priest, and the Soldier (sounds like a joke, eh?). Her freshly-summoned Giant Spider opts to block my first-striker, a fatal mistake when I respond with Mighty Leap. Sam’s down to 12 life.

Sam replaces the Giant Spider on her next turn, and I cast Stabbing Pain to take it out of commission. It’s early to say, but I have a good feeling about that card- it’s a surprising amount of versatility packed into a 1-drop (pinger/pest kill spell, combat trick, and blocker removal, all in one). The Spider can only watch as my three amigos rush by to cut Sam in half to 6. I then drop a Warlord’s Axe and pass turn.

Sam casts Act of Treason on the Pridemate to get in for token damage (I’m down to 18), but she’s running out of tricks. I equip the Axe to my Knight, go all in, and that’s the end of the Spider. Sam’s down to 2. A last-ditch Awakener Druid gives Sam two blockers, but at 2 life she’d need one more to survive the round. She doesn’t get it.

Lessons Learned

I had some fun playing Blades, but learned a lot at the same time. I don’t typically pilot Weenie/Swarm decks (my preferred model is Grixis Control, despite its current weaknesses in Standard), and while a four-land hand is typically just fine in my personal deck, it’s nearly a death sentence in Weenie/Swarm. You just run out of gas too quickly, and are playing from the topdeck way too early.

Add on top of that the natural inefficiency of Blades of Victory. Cards like Safe Passage, Mind Rot, Mighty Leap, and most assuredly the dreadful Palace Guard (who would be soooo much better as a 2/3), all dilute the threat density of the deck. I steamrolled Sam in the third game because Blades performed exactly as it is intended to- an early swarm of attackers supported by some spells to get them through. Too many combat tricks, too much fat over meat, and you’re going to have a higher occurrence rate of suboptimal draws.

This means when piloting Blades, your most important play of the game might be the one you make before the game even starts- mulligan aggressively! A strong grip of six will trump a mediocre one of seven almost every time (and given the strength of the third game, I might even have been able to get there with an opening hand of 5). An opening hand of two land- drawing into a third one by turn 3- is probably the best start this deck can make.

In Summation

If this is what’s in store for M11, I’m sold already. Sure it isn’t the best White Weenie deck you’ll ever see- it has it’s usual share of filler- but it’s not meant to be balanced against Standard, but rather the other four Intro Packs. These decks are showcases, not world-beaters, and Blades of Victory is an excellent place to start if you have designs of tuning a solid White Weenie deck of your own. Add into that a very nice rare selection (Angelic Arbiter, Vengeful Archon), and this deck is an easy buy. While M10 was widely heralded as a groundbreaking core set and helped revitalise the game in its time, its theme decks were- let’s face it- somewhat lacklustre. M11 might well be the real deal.

Final Grade: 4.5/5.0

9
Jul

Magic 2011: Blades of Victory (Part 1 of 2)

Although you’d have to go as far back as Eventide’s Life Drain to find a White/Black preconstructed deck (Shards and Conflux would blend the two with Blue for Esper decks), Blades of Victory seems to like to pretend it’s a White Weenie deck with a “dark little secret.” The back-of-the-box blurb exhorts you to “command an army of knights and soldiers” and wield “righteous power.” While it is true that every creature in the deck is White, how, then, to account for the heavy reliance on Black? With the decklists now spoiled on the ‘mothership,’ we have the opportunity to delve into the deck and see how it’s been crafted.

Here Is Your Army

Like any good White Weenie deck, the path to victory lies in its creatures, and here Blades offers an effective- if somewhat pedestrain- selection of beaters. Let’s take a peek at how it curves out, and at the choices at each particular grouping:

4x 1-drops

5x 2-drops

Your early attackers, Blades gives you enough options here that you should reliably be putting on some early pressure. A pair of Elite Vanguards are strong initial plays; the pair of Infantry Veterans less so, but pack some utility for the mid-game that the Vanguards lack. In the 2-drop slots, you have a White Knight (solid), a War Priest of Thune (utility + body), a Silvercoat Lion (yawn) and a pair of Ajani’s Pridemates. The Pridemates here are only marginally better than the Lion, as there are only two ways to gain life in this deck: a singleton Ajani’s Mantra, and Condemn. The latter option, sadly, assumes that you’re using it on your own creature. Doubtless the pair of Pridemates are here as much to showcase something new and novel with the set as any real tactical choice.

There’s a gutshot hole in the curve next:

2x 3-drop

…and they’re as weak as they look. Palace Guards may have their place, but in an aggressive swarm deck the last thing you want are a pair of dedicated blockers. If you get to the point where they are saving your bacon, you’re likely already stalling out.

The Guards evoke a wee bit of deep-seated nostalgia …but the moment passes quickly and it’s time to move on.

Calling the Cavalry

Rounding out the neat symmetry of the deck are a rather solid tail-end of beaters:

2x 4-drop

4x 5-drop

2x 7-drop

One thing of note here is in the move to restoring the decks to a rightful sixty cards, the designers have tended to use a lot of duplicates. This is a good thing, as it provides a degree of consistency and predictability that a successful deck replies upon. In Blades’ case, that results in pairs of Cloud Crusaders, dreadfully dull Siege Mastodons, and the ever-popular Serra Angels. Of these, only the Angels seem like a legitimate threat for their cost, though some air support in the form of the Crusaders is not unwelcome.

The deck saves its rare slots, though, for two last bombs on the tail end of the curve: Angelic Arbiter (the premium foil rare) and Vengeful Archon. There’s been some murmuring already about the roles of these cards in the EDH format, which makes the deck all the more appealing to that segment.

The Arbiter is a control card- it looks to hamper your opponents’ options during their turn, essentially saying “cast or attack: pick one.” Not only that, but it’s meaty 5/6 body should accelerate the end of the game even without its ability. Able to withstand the premier flyers of the Standard format (Baneslayer Angel, Spinxes, etc), you’re not likely to find a greater airborne threat to the Arbiter in the other precons. A worthy bomb!

The Vengeful Archon is even more robust: 7/7. Add in a very useful damage-redirection ability, and you’ve got a pair of closers that rank right next to Mariano Rivera.

But, of course, in the absence of any acceleration you’ll need to survive a minimum of seven turns to play either, and almost certainly more. Turn 4 is typically the last of the early, reliable land drops, and things slow down quite a bit after this. Interestingly, this fact has only somewhat recently begun to be accounted for in card design (certainly the developers realised it long ago), which accounts for the percieved ‘power creep’ of some cards. Truly, though, in general if you can’t close the deal on your opponent by the time they lay down a seventh land, you can’t complain when the game-enders start rolling out. Only in multiplayer can a game that lasts an hour be reliably called ‘fun.’

So if you won’t be seeing any bombs until late in the game, you’ve got a serious liability in the 3-drop slot, and your early 1- and 2-drop weenies are only good for so long, how is Blades expecting you to ‘get there?’

Therein lies the answer to the question posed at the beginning.

Fade to Black

Pound for pound, Black boasts some of the most effective and efficient removal of all time. White is historically no slouch, but exile-options like Path or O-Ring aren’t available in the format. So what’s a White mage to do? Splash!

Blades of Victory has a solid removal suite that dips into the Black pool for added effectiveness. On its own, White offers Condemn and a pair of Pacifisms, the latter of which are decent if vulnerable solutions. For added punch, Black brings in the iconic Doom Blade, Assassinate, and an intriguing new option, Stabbing Pain. If the goal of the deck’s removal is to remove obstacles to your weenie army as you enter the midgame and the red zone thickens up, Stabbing Pain has some intriguing utility. It can either tap down a solid defender, or kill off an opposing weenie (particularly a utility creature, which often have 1 toughness). It might not be the most solid removal on its own, but it complements the Black options nicely as the other two are similarly conditional (Doom Blade is a dead draw against Black, Assassinate requires the creature to be tapped).

The rest of the noncreature complement consists mainly of Black disruption (Duress, Mind Rot), combat tricks (Mighty Leap, BCSM magnet Safe Passage, Inspired Charge) and creature enhancements (two Armored Ascensions). The aforementioned Ajani’s Mantra and a Warlord’s Axe round out the deck.

In summary, Blades of Victory has the look of a solidly-performing White Weenie deck. Like many preconstructeds it takes a more generalist approach (Black discruption, creature enchantments, some of the combat cleverness and the whole Ajani’s lifegain aspect) to show off aspects of the set, which might weaken the deck somewhat but paradoxically enough adds to their appeal. Much of the enjoyment of the preconstructed products are in the playing of cards you might not normally play, yet having these “weaknesses” balanced against other precons in a set. You certainly wouldn’t take Blades to a Standard tourney and expect to taste much Victory, but if this deck is anything to go by, M11 seems like a very solid step forward for Core Set preconstruction. You could do worse than to buy this just to break it down or modify it.

Join me next time when we give Blades a test drive and see if it lives up to expectations!

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