New Phyrexia: Ravaging Swarm Review (Part 1 of 2)
In a sense, much of the entire block has lead up to this deck. Breaking custom by including two full-bore mechanics in a single construction, Ravaging Swarm is something of an endcap for all of Scars block. From the very beginning, infect and proliferate were designed to work in tandem to ensure the steady death of your enemy. Get some poison counters out there, then proliferate your way to victory. Of course, insofar as intro decks are concerned, it didn’t quite pan out that way.
From the initial set, Deadspread was designated as ‘the proliferate deck.’ Relatively weak on its own, it nevertheless hinted at the promise that was possible with the mechanic. Meanwhile, infect was highlighted in the somewhat pedestrian Phyrexian Poison. In keeping with what we knew of the Phyrexians at the time, both decks carried a Black component, while Deadspread paired with Blue and Phyrexian Poison with Green.
Things became a bit more of a muddle with Mirrodin Besieged. Infect took a straightforward if unusual path, dropping the Black and picking up White for Path of Blight. Meanwhile, proliferate was cobbled together with the new living weapon mechanic and baked into Doom Inevitable, a deck that more or less ‘splashed’ proliferate on only a trio of cards: Steady Progress, Contagion Clasp, and Spread the Sickness. Not exactly a shining moment of glory for the mechanic, sadly.
But like two star-crossed lovers who start at opposite ends of the ballroom and dance toward one another, the climactic moment of reunion is upon us. Infect and proliferate have had their time apart.
Now it’s time to see what they’re capable of together.
The Glory of Phyrexian Perfection
Ravaging Swarm is in some ways a typical infect deck. In happens to be heavy on creatures, and the bulk of those creatures are in the expected range: 3/3 or less. But as Scars block has ripened over the past year, its able to deliver a more nuanced experience, filling in some gaps and cracks that had previously been prominent.
When Zendikar introduced Allies, many who tinkered with the archetype concluded that while it displayed promise, what it really needed was a hypothetical one-drop Ally to really make it kick into high gear- both to curve out more aggressively as well as to feed the Ranger of Eos. Lo and behold, when Worldwake arrived it brought with it the Hada Freeblade, and competitive Ally decks began to appear. And so it is with infect, for New Phyrexia has brought us the one-drop infecter, Glistener Elf, who kicks off the creature curve of the deck’s mana costs:
Although sadly we aren’t treated to any particular shenanigans with the one-drop, a trio of them will ensure a frequent and painful threat at the start of the game- one that your opponent’s walls will not be able to stop for long, and one that might even compel them to trade out that early mana Myr if you’re lucky.
From there we have another trio of 1/1 infect vectors, the Blighted Agents. Riffs on Blue’s theme of unblockable creatures begun with Phantom Warrior, the Agents are high upside. Unable to kill them in combat, your opponent will often be forced to burn some removal on these two-drops sooner or later- the psychological impact of such a steady clock should not be overlooked. In this slot we also have a pair of defensive-minded bodies in the Blight Mamba and Wall of Tanglecord. Already you can see the some of the deck’s strategy taking shape- throw up obstacles in the red zone and get in with steady, unblockable poison every turn (to say nothing of the steady proliferation you’ll be doing before long).
The deck peaks at the three-drops, and we have some interesting options here. The pair of Viridian Betrayers turn on infect the moment your opponent becomes poisoned (has one or more poison counters). The Betrayers suffer from the usual impediment posed to creatures with heavily imbalanced power over toughness- the sharp end of the stick is formidable, but they can easily be traded for an otherwise-useless 1/1 who’s been sitting on the sidelines fetching water once the real players showed up.
Next up are the twin Cystbearers, which should long be familiar faces by now to those who have played from the start of the block. A solid 2/3 infect vector, the added durability will ensure these tend to stick around long after the Viridian Betrayers have taken one for the team. The deck also includes a Rot Wolf for added card advantage.
Finally there is a pair of Mycosynth Fiends, a very intriguing inclusion. Conventional wisdom at the start of Scars block said that mixing infect and non-infect cards diluted your threat density and essentially handed your opponent a +50% life bonus, and this was more or less correct. As the set has matured, though, even that simple axiom has grown less black-and-white, and cards like the Fiend offer a very refreshing shade of grey. While non-infect, the Fiend has the potential to become quite large as the game goes on- which will allow it to keep pace with nearly anything your opponent plays. This makes the Fiend a welcome draw at nearly any point in any game, and unless you’ve completely bottled it it should at least be a 3/3 for three mana.
One of the deck’s all-stars makes its appearance in the four-drops, two copies of the Viral Drake. The block’s first open-ended source of proliferation (other resuable sources, like the Contagion Clasp, have required tapping). Its 1-power is fine, but its 4-toughness in the air makes the Drake a real asset beyond the proliferation. Poison away early, and if things start to look dire you can often hide behind the Drake and some other defensive plays and proliferate your way to a win. An all-around superb card. The slot’s other occupant- a lone Core Prowler– absolutely pales by comparison.
Finally, we get to the deck’s finishers, and what finishers they are! Although costly, the pair of Chained Throatseekers are absolutely vulgar on the battlefield- a 5/5 infector is virtually a must-chump every combat, and if by that point in the game its drawback actually hinders you, you’re probably going to lose anyway. Also here is a Spinebiter, which can load a spew of hate onto your opponent whether its blocked or not. From time to time, Green has flirted with the ability to assign its combat damage as if the creature had not been blocked. Back in Urza Block you had the Lone Wolf and Thorn Elemental, and Guildpact even made a sorcery out of the concept (Predatory Focus). Interestingly, the concept was attempted earliest in Red (Outmaneuver), but that was quietly the end of it.
Another non-infect option makes itself known here in the form of a Plaguemaw Beast, whose inclusion is a consequence of its ability to proliferate at the expense of a creature- another solid body to put in the way if you’re compelled to circle the wagons, as it can get you those last few critical poison counters. Finally, the deck’s premium foil rare arrives in the form of the Phyrexian Swarmlord. One in a long line of Green “token-spawning” creatures, the Swarmlord has the potential to get out of control very quickly. Although he’s a bit of what Mark Rosewater has glossed “win-more” cards, the more overlooked ability he brings to the table is psychological pressure. One thing we’ve seen in this block is the mental distinction we seem to have between life and poison. Players who don’t even blink when they’re down to 10 life might start to get anxious when they’re at 5 poison counters- though to be fair, that has something to do with how much stronger combat tricks and pump-spells like Giant Growth are on infect bodies. Still, the grin pospect of getting overrun with a swarm of 1/1 infected Insect tokens might compel your opponent to play under pressure, and that can lead to mistakes and forced plays as they try to avoid taking any damage at all. Its 4/4 body is no great steal for its cost, but the card advantage it brings can more than make up for it.
Flesh is a Sickness
The remaining baker’s dozen of noncreature support cards are a real hodge-podge, defying easy generalisation (or predicable drawing). The Contagion Clasp acts as potential removal and a proliferation package all in one. A trio of Leeching Bites make up your combat trick suite- but also act as ersatz removal. The only hard removal spell here is a singleton Naturalize, which is strong in this environment but still is only one card. A Corrupted Conscience is less firm, but has tremendous upside in stealing the affected creature for your own nefarious ends (and if they try to bounce it back or otherwise reclaim it, with luck you’ll have a very hungry Plaguemaw Beast working up an appetite).
The deck also has a splash of countermagic in the shape of a Corrupted Resolve. Another card that only really comes on-line once you’ve delivered a poison counter across the table, this should be seen as a fairly reliable hard counter for the mid-game and beyond- it’s a dead draw in your opening hand. Again, if you’ve gone through most of the game without having delivered a single poison counter to your enemy, it’s unlikely that any one card in Ravaging Swarm is going to save you. There’s also a Fuel for the Cause, which tries to offset its increased cost by adding proliferate (and largely fails- few counterspells that cost four mana are fit for duty, though Dismiss and Cryptic Command come to mind).
As far as proliferation goes, you have a two additional options here. There’s the very useful and straightforward Steady Progress, and then there’s the somewhat clunky Inexorable Tide. The Tide is a carryover from Scars of Mirrodin, and has helped fuel some of the controversy surrounding the rares selection this go-round. It can end games, but in and of itself does nothing and frequently will not pay off as well as it promises.
Rounding out this crazyquilt are twin Trigons of Infestation (in case swarms of 1/1 Insects weren’t enough, and you needed a few more) and a Defensive Stance. All three of these really belong on the scrapheap, and are the worst inclusions of the lot. The Trigon asks you to spend six mana to get your first 1/1 token, while the Stance’s effect is hardly worth a card. It screams ‘cantrip,’ but no matter how many times you read it, the words ‘draw a card’ won’t appear.
And there we have it- at last, the great infect/proliferate combo deck we’ve been moving to since Scars of Mirrodin. We’ll take it into the field to playtest and return with the results!