New Phyrexia: Life for Death Review (Part 2 of 2)
At last, one of the set’s most anticipated intro decks shakes off its plastic casing and gets shuffled up in the field of battle. The flagship deck for the Phyrexian mana mechanic, Life for Death promises to be a deck quite unlike most any we’ve seen before. Boldly standing in its way is Jimi, who has opted to pilot the Devouring Skies deck. Will its air force and living weaponry have what it takes to put this Boros deck to rest?
Jimi begins the game on the play, and both of us lead with a land before passing. A turn-2 Hovermyr– that ubiquitous pest– descends next turn, and I have a decision to make. My opening hand wasn’t the most exciting- a Porcelain Legionnaire being the highlight, with a Whitesun’s Passage and Golem’s Heart giving me free rein on Phyrexian mana- but I’ve drawn a turn-2 Rage Extractor, and I have the mana in hand to make it drop on turn 4. Ordinarily I’d favour aggressive play- dropping the Legionnaire right away- but instead I decide I’m going to hold off on playing any Phyrexian mana cards, and drop the Extractor the first chance I get to see if the buzz on the card is well-placed. I play the Golem’s Heart and end my turn.
The Hovermyr nicks in for 1, then Jimi adds a Brass Squire which heals me back to 20. I play a Mountain. Back to Jimi, she attacks with both her robots, then summons some living equipment in the form of a Sickleslicer. That triggers my Golem’s Heart again, and I add a Whitesun’s Passage atop it letting me end my turn at 24 life. Back to me, the time has come: I pay 2 life, tap out, and down comes the Rage Extractor. Will it be worth it?
Now turn 5, Jimi takes advantage of my defenselessness and swings with the team for 4, leaving me at 21 (I gained a life from the Extractor). Over to me, I summon the Porcelain Legionnaire (+1 life), giving me my first blast from the Extractor. I direct the three points toward Jimi’s Squire, killing it. Next turn Jimi Doom Blades the Legionnaire, rightly guessing that speed is her ally here, and comes in for 3. I’m now down to 19 life, though Jimi has yet to be touched. That won’t last long. Back to me, I summon a Slash Panther, triggering my Extractor to send a veritable Lava Axe at Jimi. Since her forces are tapped from attacking, I follow with the Panther and just like that, Jimi’s almost half-dead. I’m back to 20.
A turn-7 Necropouncer leads another attack through the red zone. I’m looking at 6 damage, but I’d gained 1 life from the Heart for her ‘Pouncer and am only down to 15. I go into the tank for a moment, calculating my chances at racing Jimi by trading blow for blow, and I’m not in love with my odds. I decide instead to hold back and see if I can draw more advantage from the Extractor. I play a Plains and pass. Next turn, Jimi moves to equip the Necropouncer to the Hovermyr. I respond with an Apostle’s Blessing on my Panther, giving it protection from artifacts until end of turn, but also letting me kill off the Hovermyr with the Rage Extractor before it gets suited up. Jimi goes ahead and equips the ‘Pouncer on her Sickleslicer instead. That’s just fine by me, as next turn I solve the Sickleslicer with a Pacifism, then execute on the attack of opportunity. Jimi’s down to 7 life, I’m still at 15.
A replacement Sickleslicer touches down on turn 9 (+1 life), the Necroskitter is moved to it to give it haste and it comes in for 5 damage. Jimi then plays a redundant Silver Myr (+1 life) and passes. I counterattck with the Panther, and Jimi chumps with the newly-summoned Myr. I then replace it on the defensive line with an Ogre Resister before ending my turn. Jimi’s next turn is a blank, while I look to press my advantage and send in both of my beaters. Jimi flashes in a Spire Monitor as a surprise blocker, and it’s an all-around trade with both attackers and both blockers headed for the graveyard.
It’s now turn 11, and Jimi draws another blank. I summon a Porcelain Legionnaire, and send 3 points of damage to Jimi’s face while gaining a life in the process. Next turn Jimi plays a Darkslick Drake, equipping it with the Necropouncer. A solid defender, but when it’s back to me and I topdeck a second Slash Panther, the game is won as the Rage Extractor hurls lethal damage across the table.
Having handily won the first game, I’m feeling inclined to take some risk now and I keep a one-lander. My hand is nicely stocked, with a Legionnaire, Golem’s Heart, Kemba’s Skyguard, and Pacifism, so I’m not in grave risk of an unplayable start.
Our first turn is spent playing land, and our second sees our first creatures arrive- Jimi’s Hovermyr versus my Porcelain Legionnaire (paying 2 life for the casting). Next turn Jimi adds an Augury Owl after attacking in the air for 1, while I counterattack for 3 and play a Kemba’s Skyguard. My gamble has paid off, as I’ve drawn land each turn. The Skyguard gives me a touch of life back, and it’s a 17-19 game in my favour.
Now turn 4, Jimi adds a real threat to the board in the form of a Blind Zealot. I drop the Golem’s Heart next, then use up my Pacifism on the Zealot to keep it occupied. Next turn Jimi plays a Viridian Claw (+1 life) and passes. I attack for 5 with my Legionnaire and Skyguard duo, but Jimi Vapor Snags away the Legionnaire. Fine with me- I tap out (and pay 2 more life) for the mighty Rage Extractor, and end my turn.
Jimi attaches the Claw to the wee Hovermyr on turn 6, then attacks in the air for 2 with it, taking me to 16. I replay the Porcelain Legionnaire, and the Rage Extractor damage gets pointed at the Hovermyr, killing it. I then attack for 2, but Jimi Vapor Snags the Skyguard away as well, dinging me for another point of damage. Next turn, Jimi plays another Blind Zealot, then attaches the Viridian Claw to her Augury Owl. I play a Slash Panther, cutting Jimi in half down to 5 life, then send it in on the attack alongside the Porcelain Legionnaire. A curious attack, perhaps, but I figured I’d lose one anyway to the Zealot, and if any damage got through Jimi’s fate would be sealed. Instead, Jimi trades the Zealot for the Panther, and the Owl for the Legionnaire.
Back to Jimi for turn 8, she rebuilds her ground troops with a Kiln Walker. It avails her little, however, as I finish her off the next turn. Casting Apostle’s Blessing again, I aim the 2 Rage Extractor damage at Jimi, taking her to 3. Then I show the Lightning Bolt for lethal.
A curious game, with two in my pocket I took an even bigger gamble here, as I occasionally like to push a deck to see what it’s capable of beyond merely winning. As we’ll see, there is a limit on what even Life for Death can get away with…
Our first turn spent in the customary manner, Jimi plays a second-turn Augury Owl to refine her draws. Next turn, she adds a Hovermyr after attacking for 1. While I’m still holding off on the plays, she adds a turn 4 Sickleslicer (attacking for 2), and then I finally react, dropping the Rage Extractor. It’s one of two in my hand, and I desperately want to live the dream of a double-Extractor, but Jimi’s adding the pressure too quickly and I might have to wait.
After being attacked for 4 on turn 5 (putting me to 11 life), I decide I’ll bring out a creature first and try to stall things down. I summon a Shattered Angel and pass. Alas, next turn Jimi Doom Blades it, then runs in her forces for 6.
Now at 5 life and with only a Rage Extractor for board presence, I go into the tank and review my hand. I’ve got some Phyrexian mana spells, and no shortage of mana to play them without having to resort to life which I can ill-affort to lose. But at this point, I’ve painted myself into a corner, as a single Rage Extractor won’t offer up enough damage output to save my bacon. I overextended, and got caught. I bite the bullet and play the second Extractor, knowing Jimi can injure but not kill me next turn, and I can start to pick off her forces.
Alas, Jimi’s not reading from the same battle plan as I am. She surprises me by adding a Necropouncer to her turn 7 attack. It upends my best-laid-plans, and scores Jimi a well-deserved win.
The gamble didn’t pay off this time, but it’s fun to imagine what might have happened had Jimi not produced a critter with haste. I could have played a Gut Shot on her Hovermyr, then finished it off with one Extractor, shooting down her Augury Owl with the other. I had a Solemn Offering for her Sickleslicer, which would have gained me some life back, and would still have had an Apostle’s Blessing and Lightning Bolt in hand for threat resolution while I clawed my way back into the game.
More of the story: don’t get greedy.
Thoughts & Analysis
It’s hard to say exactly how much was the deck and how much was the mechanic, but in the end what does it matter- Life for Death was an absolute blast to play.
Let’s start with Phyrexian mana. Although this one intro deck only begins to scratch at the surface of the potential of the mechanic, it has it in spades. Just under half of all nonland cards in the deck exhibited the mechanic, which gave me great flexibility when planning my first few turns. Since these cards could be paid at normal cost for the effect, or accelerated with the loss of a little life, you had a lot of flexibility in sculpting how your deck would initially curve out. Although the turn-2 Porcelain Legionnaire was almost always correct, there are other cards and situations where you’ll welcome this flexibility. And while I never landed the turn-4 Moltensteel Dragon, that’s certainly a dream for another day.
Indeed, both rares in this deck are particularly strong. Although the Dragon is vulnerable to all the usual removal, the intro deck ‘meta’ tends towards removal-light, and you’ll often have opportunity to close out games with it. The deck’s other rare- Phyrexian Rebirth– is a true bomb in this format, and has a power level you don’t often see in intro packs. Again, given the relative lack of removal, that Horror token has a very good chance of winning the game nearly outright for you (as it did for Jimi in one of our recent playtests).
Card selection overall is very strong, with trios of Porcelain Legionnaires and Slash Panthers being particularly welcome. There are a few misses, with Incite being the worst offender. The lifegain suite was a good fit here, although given the preponderance of artifact creatures in this deck I’m a bit surprised we didn’t see War Report here instead.
Finally, the deck is highly illustrative of the concept of incremental advantage, and puts cards like Rage Extractor and Golem’s Heart to good use. Lifegaining “lucky charms” like the Heart are ordinarily detestable, but here they aren’t just adding a few scraps to your life, they’re also refilling a resource- more life means more Phyrexian mana payments are available to you. In that first game, for example, I was able to ‘Extract’ 18 points of ‘Rage’ over the course of the game- a superb value! In the same game, a single, early Golem’s Heart netted me +10 life.
Hits: Superb mechanic that is highly supported by deck composition; unusually powerful rare selection; tremendously fun to play
Misses: A few cards offer easy replacement (Incite, Lumengrid Gargoyle, even the Shattered Angel isn’t all that praiseworthy, though her conditional lifegain has its place)
Final Score: 4.75/5.00