Magic 2012: Sacred Assault Review (Part 1 of 2)
Auras have long been the proverbial red-headed stepchild of Magic. Early in the game, when terms like “card advantage” had yet to be minted, enchanting creatures didn’t seem like such a bad thing to do. You took a creature that perhaps had been outclassed by others and made it better, or made your champion beater just that much stronger. Sure you might lose both cards when that creature died, but it took awhile for the players of the game to understand the full significance of that fact.
But figure it out they did.
And since that time, Wizards has been trying to come up with ways to make playing auras attractive, unwilling to abandon the very basic concept of making the good better. It’s hard to say exactly when this realisation dawned, but it does make for an interesting walk through time to see the ways that R&D have tried to make the aura playable. A few highlights…
Tempest Block (1997)
These cards tended to hit all the bases. There was a number of beneficial auras that you could return to your hand for a mere one mana, such as Crown of Flames, Flickering Ward, and Shimmering Wings. Returnability is good, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of being two-for-oned when the creature you’re trying to cast it on is killed in response (then it just fizzles for wont of a target and both head to the graveyard).
Urza Block (1998)
Urza’s Saga had a cycle of auras that returned to their owner’s hand when placed in the graveyard from the battlefield, such as Fiery Mantle, Fortitude, and- perhaps most famously- Rancor. Since these still needed to actually resolve, they also could be blanked by killing the creature they’re targeting in response.
Odyssey Block (2001)
Onslaught Block (2002)
Onslaught Block brought us the “Dragon cycle,” a series of auras that gave the enchanted creature some aspect of a Dragon (Breath, Fangs, Scales, Shadow, Wings). The innovation they carried was that if they were in the graveyard, they could be played for free attached to any creature with a converted mana cost of 6 or more. This reusability- while limited- could certainly even the scales a bit with regards to card disadvantage.
Mirrodin Block (2003)
Mirrodin introduced an innovation that was, essentially, an improved version of the creature aura. “Equipment” all but sealed the fate of auras for the next year- in all the block, there were only seven.
Kamigawa Block: (2004)
Kamigawa had a significantly higher number of creature auras after the drought of Mirrodin, but it was the Genju cycle (Cedars, Fens, Falls, Fields, Realm, and Spires) that really showed the most promise. With instant-speed landkill far rarer than creature removal, the threat of being two-for-oned upon casting the aura was largely gone. In addition, with the Genjus returning to hand after being put in the graveyard from play, they could give some very solid card parity (parity because you still lost the land). As innovateive as they were, though, they didn’t touch the problems inherent in creature auras, they just sidestepped them.
Ravnica Block (2005)
Another way to overcome the weakness of the card type is to make the cards worth the risk. Ravnica attempted that with the Magemark cycle (Beastmaster’s, Fencer’s, Guardian’s, Infiltrator’s, Necromancer’s), which gave a bonus not only to the creature you enchanted, but to every creature you had enchanted. This was, of course, conditional, and it seemed to indicate that the answer to risk was simply to assume more of it and hope some of it stuck. Nevertheless, it was an intriguing option.
Time Spiral Block (2006)
What didn’t this block try? Return to owner’s hand after being graveyarded? Check (Fallen Ideal). All-in aura strategy? Check (Auramancer’s Guise). Auras that gain value by affecting all your creatures? Check (Emblem of the Warmind). Cantrips? Check (Eternity Snare). Replaces itself with a creature? Check (Griffin Guide). Offset risk with a heavy reward? Check (Verdant Embrace). All onetime answers, but few solutions. Of note? The ‘future’ mechanic aura swap on Arcanum Wings.
Lorwyn-Shadowmoor Block (2007/2008)
Little worthy of mention here, although the general enxhantment Greater Auramancy showed that R&D was not giving up the ghost.
Zendikar Block (2009)
The next great innovation to the creature aura arrived with the advent of totem armor. Although it still did not satisfactorily solve the problem with a creature getting killed in response to the aura, it did provide card economy by giving you a second lease on life for the enchanted creature.
As you can see, a most thorough effort has been made to redeem the lowly aura and restore it to playability, with notable accomplishment but little success. Even still, “enchant creature” remains a four-letter word unless it happens to affect your opponent’s creatures, like Arrest or Corrupted Conscience. In those cases, it’s trading a card for a card- perfectly fine. But with Magic 2012, we just might have found a winning formula to give these auras their most fighting chance yet: hexproof.
No Room for Wickedness
Sacred Assault may not be the first aura-centric precon to hit the shelves- Rise of the Eldrazi tried it with Totem Power, and before that 9th Edition gave us Custom Creatures, but it may well prove to be the most successful. With the rise of hexproof, the reactive loss of two cards at the hands of your opponent’s timely removal is virtually eliminated. And while your enchanted creature is certainly susceptible to dying the old-fashioned way- in the red zone- that’s not quite the same thing.
Under the ‘Philosophy of Fire,” a card is more or less worth 3 points of damage (7 cards in opening draw x 3 damage per card = 21 damage, win). By that simple yet powerful logic, any card that manages to inflict 3 points of damage on your opponent has done its job. If you enchant a creature with an aura that gives it +3/+0 and it connects on your swing, then next turn your opponent draws the Doom Blade and kills it, it hasn’t been a total loss. Indeed, you might have gotten two-for-oned, but you have gotten full value for the card. Anything after that is a bonus (or making up for the shortcomings of others). Hexproof doesn’t solve death in combat, but it certainly makes the job of enchanting your creatures much easier.
The term ‘hexproof’ is a recent innovation coined for this set, but the mechanic it represents has been with us for some time. Coined to describe the limited shroud ability present on the Mirrodin card Troll Ascetic, the servant truly has become the master: hexproof is here to stay, and shroud has gone the way of the dodo. Like some of the other Magic 2012 decks, though, Celestial Assault weaves strands from multiple themes to form its whole. In addition to the hexproof creatures, auras and affiliated support, there is also a strong Griffin theme here, containing a full nine creatures of the type. There’s little fanciness or flair here- aside from Griffin Riders, what you see is what you get.
Reserves of Strength
As you can see from the creature curve, Sacred Assault promises a fairly steady delivery of threats, with options at nearly any point in the game.
There are some early options at the one-drop slot, with a pair of Elite Vanguards for some early damage. There’s also a hexproof target in the form of a Gladecover Scout. With a bit of luck the Scout might get in for a few nicks of damage, but her main purpose is to serve as raw material for an aura.
At the two-drop slot we find a strong supporting cast. The aforementioned Griffin Rider checks in here, a potential 4/4 flyer which can swing for you as early as turn 3. That alone should ensure that it steals the occasional game if your opponent doesn’t draw into their removal or play arerial threats of their own. A Jade Mage offers a reusable store of Saproling tokens, which have virtually no synergy with anything else in the deck but can at least give you a good mana sink. The White entry in the cycle- Alabaster Mage– shows up here as a two-of offering lifelink. Neither Mage is especially impressive in this particular deck, but each deck seems to be keen to show off its respective Mages, with some being better fits than others.
Your first Griffins check in at the robust three-drop slot, with a pair of Griffin Sentinels. They’re not the most offensive option, but a 3-toughness vigilant body can soak of an appreciable amount of damage. The deck’s aura theme gets a boost with a pair of Sacred Wolves and Auramancers. The Wolves are typically junk- the fact that it can’t be done away with by targeted removal means very little when a simple 1/1 token can profitably trade out with it. There are ways in the deck to vastly improve the Wolf, though it is reliant upon a second card, and they do make solid blockers. The Auramancer is to auras what the Gravedigger is to creatures, so there’s little new there. With ten auras in the deck, you’ll typically have plenty of opportunities to maximise her value here. Finally, one of the decks two rares- the Mesa Enchantress– capitalises on the aura theme by letting you draw a card for each one you cast.
Your real beaters begin checking in with your four-drops. A trio of Assault Griffins will give you some muscle in the air, while a pair of Cudgel Trolls offer an offensive nuisance that simply refuses to stay dead. Although they are easy prey for Incinerate, they’re very hard to kill otherwise so long as you keep mana up for their regeneration. Finally at the top of the curve we have the aura-synergistic Thran Golems, 3/3’s that become much bigger and gain a raft of abilities when you enchant them. The Griffin tribe gets one more nod with a pair of Peregrine Griffins, and finally there is the Aegis Angel.
The Angel is something of an anomoly here- she doesn’t interact with her deck the way some of the others, such as the Arachnus Spinner in Entangling Webs. Indeed, she rather feels shoehorned-in to give the deck an attractive foil rare. This is welcome news for any Angel collector, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the slot really belonged to the Dungrove Elder. A 5/5 flyer for six mana is very competitive, and her ability will often prove quite frustrating for your opponent, but aside from being a quality finisher she really doesn’t add much to the deck.
An Armory of Light
Perhaps unsurprisingly, every noncreature care save one is an aura. The lone exception is a miser’s copy of Naturalize. Everything else you’ll be casting during your main phase, including your removal suite of a trio of Pacifisms. From there you can build your ‘custom creatures’ with lifelink (Lifelink– surprise), protection from creatures (two Spirit Mantles), a Holy Strength-type toughness booster (two Divine Favors), or regeneration (Trollhide). For a twist, there’s also a copy of Lure in the deck, just the ticket for prying open your opponent’s defenses for a final alpha strike, and absolutely brutal when enchanting one of your regenerating Trolls or a creature made indestructible with the Angel.
That’s all there is to the deck- hexproof creatures, auras, and aura support, combined with an aerial wing of Griffins for a skies-based attack strategy. We’ll give the deck a run through its paces, and let you know how it performed.