New Phyrexia: Life for Death Review (Part 1 of 2)
One of the great enjoyments from the third set in any block is seeing how they mechanically represent the end of the line. Unlike the first set, where the introduced main mechanics can be fleshed out as the block goes on, the ones in the last set are assigned to have a rather more limited shelf-life. When exalted and unearth were launched with Shards of Alara, you got to see how they were tweaked in Conflux. Not so for Alara Reborn’s cascade– there, what you saw was what you got, and barring a future revisit of the mechanic, that was all you were getting.
Scars of Mirrodin brought a new crop of mechanics to the fold. Metalcraft loomed large early on, but has faded with the declining fortunes of the Mirrans. Meanwhile, infect– one of the Phyrexian’s mechanics- has been added to, layer upon layer throughout all three sets. As they say, to the victors go the spoils, and the new mechanic for New Phyrexia is very Phyrexian in both flavour and function: Phyrexian mana.
Unlike the earlier attempt at “alternate” mana (snow mana from Ice Age block), Phyrexian mana is less an entirely new form of mana, and more a more flexible twist on the conventional kind. You can play cards with Phyrexian mana costs the ordinary way to your heart’s content, and never know the difference. That difference, though, is what brings out the full intricacy of the mechanic- by permitting the payment of mana with life, you cast wide the colour pie and allow for splashings of colour seldom seen. Now any deck can have effects traditionally reserved for a specific colour, such as burn (see: Gut Shot) or Giant Growths (see: Mutagenic Growth). Of course, for each benefit there must be a trade-off for the sake of balance, so you don’t quite get the full efficiency you’d normally expect. Gut Shot only offers 1 measley point off damage, while Mutagenic Growth is only two-thirds as robust as Giant Growth, but that’s the cost of flexibility.
One intriguing by-product of Phyrexian mana is the shot in the arm that it gives to lifegain. By allowing at least a partial payment for many spells and effects to be made with life, it increases the value of effects that add life- it’s a bit like recharging the batteries. That’s the direction that Life for Death takes. Pack the deck with a ton of Phyrexian mana spells, throw in a number of ways to boost your life total, and you’ve got an efficiency boost that should see your deck gain clear advantage over the course of the game. Let’s look, for instance at the deck’s premium foil rare: Moltensteel Dragon. Ordinarily you’d be lucky to get a six-mana Dragon out on turn six, and to do so (without consistent ramp) you’d need to hit six land drops in a row (of the right colours). More likely, you’d be holding on to that Dragon until around turn 8 or 9 or so.
However, because of the Phyrexian mana component in the Moltensteel Dragon’s cost, you’re looking at the much more consistently-achievable goal of needing to hit only four land drops to deploy it. With three land being a common sight in an opening draw (and then needing to pick up one more land in three draws to be right on schedule), a consistent 4/4 flyer on turn 4 begins to look more like a feature of the deck rather than a possibility. That’s the essential bargain at the heart of Life for Death– you’ll play your game with less than 20 life, but you’ll have consistent ramping to play more cards than your opponent, and get your bigger spells and effects out sooner. The lifegain cards are your safety net, ensuring you don’t end up acting your own worst enemy, and charging you back up for more Phyrexian mana payments. It’s an exciting strategy, and one that looks like a great deal of fun to play on first blush.
We’ll begin our analysis of the deck with its creatures.
Reinforce the Sacred Order
Life for Death tends to go for more efficiency than theme, and its creatures reflect this. This is the triumph of function over form, and within its 60 cards don’t be surprised to see things that wouldn’t ordinarily make sense from a flavour perspective, such as Kemba’s Skyguards fighting alongside your Shattered Angel. These cards are selected by how they reinforce the efficacy of the deck, and are entirely divorced from such sentimentalities. Perhaps that in itself is enough to give it a very Phyrexian theme all its own.
The deck lacks any one-drops, but does carry a quartet of early plays at the 2-drop slot. First we have a pair of Immolating Souleaters, a wickedly brutal 1/1 that has a Firebreathing-style pump effect, but with Phyrexian mana. This means that if the Souleater gets through, you can drain your opponent by draining your own life total, a sort of all-in suicide strategy that’s right at home amongst Black and Red cards. From there we have something completely different- Cathedral Membrane– a defensive-minded obstacle that has the potential to kill what killed it once it dies. Lastly, there’s an Inquisitor Exarch, one of the cycle of Exarchs which give you a bimodal enters-the-battlefield effect. In the Inquisitor’s case, it’s whether to gain 2 life or compel your opponent to lose 2 instead. In a deck such as this, that’s no idle choice, and is a very welcome flexibility. One of the challenges of weenie creatures is that they become so less appealing when drawn late in the game, but you will steal the occasional late-game kill off of this two-mana 2/2. A very strong card.
Moving on to the 3-drops we have another brace of cards in the Souleater cycle, this time with Blinding variety. These act as Blinding Mages, giving you the option to tap down a creature. Like the Immolating Souleater, this activation is triggered by Phyrexian mana, which means that you can burn life to activate it in a pinch. Then there’s a duo of Kemba’s Skyguards- 2/2 flyers for three mana that bring along a sprinkle of lifegain when they arrive. Life for Death has a few options in the sky, and these are a solid inclusion. Finally, we have a trio of Porcelain Legionnaires. Although vulnerable to pingers like the Prodigal Pyromancer or Blisterstick Shaman, their first strike makes them formidable opponents, and the option to cast them for only means they’re some of the strongest cards in the deck. A second-turn 3/1 first striker will have little difficulty getting a few runs in through the red zone.
There’s only one 4-drop on offer here, and it’s the unremarkable Ogre Resister. This is unabashed filler, and adds nothing but a body to the deck. A 4/3 vanilla for four mana is about as good as you’re going to get in common Red, so hold your nose and play him when you can- this deck isn’t blessed with a lot of robust creature options.
The paucity at the 4-drop slot is compensated by a wealth of options at the top of the curve. For five mana you have a Shattered Angel, a 3/3 flyer which has a sort of reverse-landfall effect, giving you a nice chunk of life whenever your opponent plays a land. This would ordinarily be a nice (if somewhat ho-hum) bonus, but in this deck she becomes an all-star. Get her out early enough, and you might even retard your opponent’s manabase development, as they hold back lands to deprive you of a replenishment of your resources. A trio of Slash Panthers– 4/2 bodies with haste– add some aggression up the middle, though their 2 toughness often will mean that they get traded out for some redundant body of your opponent’s that cost rather less than five mana. How much more interesting this card would have been for ! Alas, we get what we get.
Lastly, we have another pair of flyers, the Lumengrid Gargoyle (yawn) and foil premium rare, Moltensteel Dragon. There’s little to say about the Gargoyle- it’s a simple aerial beater and one of the deck’s two strongest creatures (strictly in terms of power and toughness). The Dragon is a splendid example of the power of Phyrexian mana, able to be summoned (as discussed above) on turn 4 and- like the Immolating Souleater- pay for its power-pump through use of your life total.
We’ve saved the mana curve for the end of the creature analysis in order to show you the contrast that the deck’s Phyrexian mana option offers. We’ve actually plotted two curves for this. The first one is the curve the deck exhibits assuming you pay the mana cost for all creatures. The second shows how much more aggressive the curve becomes if you instead use life payments for all Phyrexian mana costs. Naturally, battlefield circumstances will dictate whether you’re in better position to do one or the other, but this should show you the options available to you, and the turbo boost you get from Phyrexian mana.
With a 50/50 mix of creatures and noncreature support, the deck runs a touch leaner on the beaters than you might ordinarily expect from an intro deck, but as we’ll see there are a lot of tricks up Life for Death’s sleeve, and we’ve only looked at half of them.
The Joyous Work Continues
Having this much room for noncreature support means that the deck can bring a lot of different benefits to the table which still contribute towards the aim of the deck. It brings a reasonable amount of removal in some rather varied forms. First you have a small burn suite consisting of a Lightning Bolt and Gut Shot. White brings the expected tools to the table with a pair of Pacifisms, but also has Marrow Shards, offering the tantalising prospect of a two-or-three-for one in the early game. There’s also a Disenchant variant in Solemn Offering, which has the upshot of giving you 4 life in the deal for one extra mana (and a slower cast). In a set with so many artifact creatures, you should have little trouble using this as a kill spell when needed.
If that’s not enough, you have a sweeper effect (with a twist) in the shape of a Phyrexian Rebirth, the deck’s other rare. By offering both a Wrath and a potentially large beater in one card for six mana, this card can be a brutal swing in most any game in the preconstructed environment. Lastly, there are a pair of Rage Extractors, which can enable a serious amount of damage if deployed early enough. It seems in most Magic sets there tend to be cards deliberately designed to take advantage of the presence of a set’s mechanic, and again we find this ending up in the intro deck (recall that Worldwake’s Brute Force carried a copy of Rumbling Aftershocks, an obvious cousin to Rage Extractor).
While not exactly removal, Red’s compulsion effects can certainly turn a game in your favour, even if the effects aren’t permanent. Towards that end, Life for Death includes a pair of Acts of Aggression and a singleton Incite. The Incite is Core Set filler (an Act of Treason would have been more welcome), but note that the Acts are instants, and can set up a devastating two-for-one in response to your enemy’s attack, remove a nettlesome blocker, or borrow their best beater to land a hand on your alpha strike. It comes at a steep price, but one that will often be worth it, especially if it ends the game.
There’s some unapologetic lifegain in a pair of Whitesun’s Passages, a steady stream of life through a pair of Golem’s Hearts, and a Pristine Talisman (which combines lifegain with mana ramp). Finally, there’s a miser’s copy of Apostle’s Blessing, which can instantly give one of your creatures or artifacts protection from a colour (or from artifacts) until end of turn- just the tonic to counter one of their removal spells, or get them through the red zone unmolested!
Here are your complete mana curves, again in both mana and life variants:
Next time we’ll be back with a battlefield report, to see how Life for Death held up on the proving grounds. See you then!