Innistrad: Deathly Dominion Review (Part 1 of 2)
At the first meeting of the design team for Innistrad, lead designer Mark Rosewater had everyone present list out every theme and trope they could think of, writing them on a whiteboard. By the end of the session, there were a ton of ideas floating around. To be certain, you had the list of monster types like Vampire and Werewolf. Transformation was a big one, as evidenced by the dual-faced cards. And of course, lurking in the background like a shade was the one concept that appears in virtually every horror movie or story ever made: death.
Ordinarily, death signals the end of something. A person passes away, their remains are properly disposed of (if they are so fortunate), and the material possessions they collected over their lifetime are distributed to those surviving them (if again, they are so fortunate). Whether the end comes in silent claiming in the middle of the night or in a violent flurry of biting and tearing, it comes for us all. In Deathly Dominion, Innistrad’s Black/Green deck, death represents something else. Opportunity.
Flashback, as we saw in Eldritch Onslaught, is a perfect mechanical fit for this set. Flashback cards that end up in the graveyard can be reused, so filling up your graveyard is in some ways like stocking up the larder. However, from a thematic and flavourful sense, it has little tie. What is a flashbacked spell? How is it different from any other? Like Urza’s Saga’s cycling and Tempest’s buyback, it is a purely mechanical gameplay device. If you’re looking for a mechanic which drips with flavour, you’ll want to have a look at morbid.
Morbid is the mechanic which makes opportunity of death. Be it one of your own or your opponents, if a creature has died in the same turn that you play a morbid spell, you get an increased benefit. As an example, let’s take a look at Brimstone Volley. It’s simply a more expensive Lightning Bolt if cast on its own, but if something has died that turn it becomes a real bargain- 5 damage instead of 3. Deathly Dominion is filled with just these sorts of effects, and it’s a very common theme in Magic. Cards which are somewhat inefficient in their natural state, but become extremely efficient under a narrow set of circumstances are not an innovation new to Innistrad. It is through that lens that we’ll be examining today’s Intro Pack.
Bury Your Dead Deep
Deathly Dominion is a creature-based deck which squarely hits the customary 24-12-24 split of creature-noncreature support-lands ratio. Despite the healthy presence of Black, it tends to follow a more conventional Green-based strategy of ramping into fatties and beating its opponents with them- though as we’ll see, it has a few surprises up its sleeves. Let’s open with the creature curve.
One thing that the deck forces you to do is reconsider your natural aversion to card disadvantage and killing off your own creatures. Indeed, with the correct timing you’ll be rewarded for having your creatures die or be sacrificed off, and the deck includes a few sacrifice outlets for you to trigger a death at will.
The one-drop isn’t much to look at- Typhoid Rats– but their deathtouch means they’ll be relevant at nearly any point of the game, even as a defensive creature to kill something that’s giving you a hard way to go. Its in the two-drops, however, that the deck’s core elements start to become obvious. First, there’s a sneakier version of the Rats in the shape of an Ambush Viper. The Innistrad environment is generally lacking in abundant, efficient removal such as those which we have seen in recent sets, and the deck designers have seemed to want to preserve that aspect even with the access to Magic 2012 (for instance, this deck contains a single Doom Blade). The Ambush Viper is a versatile card that can be either a 2/1 beater if you need the body, or essentially a kill spell that says “destroy target attacking creature.” You’ll have to judge which is needed more on the basis of the battlefield each game, but considering how small the removal suite is here it might best be saved.
Next, there’s a pair of Disciples of Griselbrand. On their own they’re not especially impressive- extra life is a somewhat poor payment for the loss of a creature, and under ordinary circumstances he’s conditional at best. But his value here is as a sac outlet, a way to trigger your morbid cards when you need to rather than having to force it by attacking and hoping your opponent does you the favour of blocking. Still within the same two-drop slot, we find sacrificial fodder as well as one of the best reasons to do so in the deck. The ‘fodder’ are the pair of Reassembling Skeletons, almost custom-built for this very purpose. Not only are they more flavourful than the old Drudge Skeletons, their reassembling ability allows for sacrificial shenanigans that regeneration would not permit. The last card is the foil premium rare, Skirsdag High Priest. A closer in the form of an unassuming 1/2 body, the High Priest has to survive a round until it’s no longer summoning sick to activate, but it won’t take too many activations to likely hand you the game.
Two more sac outlets appear in the three-drops with a couple of Devouring Swarms. The evasion and pumpability usually give these sorts of creatures some utility as closers in the deck, but you’ll often get less mileage out of it in Deathly Dominion. Because of morbid, this deck is going to exhibit a tendency to give you fewer, bigger creatures rather than a greater number of smaller ones, since you’ll often be engineering deaths to trigger morbid. Swarms work best when they have an abundance of food, allowing you to sacrifice your board for a lethal strike once you’ve battered your opponent. Still, as a manaless sac outlet, the Swarm has yet a role to play. You also have a pair of Warpath Ghouls here, somewhat pedestrian 3/2 beaters.
Moving on to the packed four-drops, we find another sacrificial creature in the Brain Weevil. A feeble 1/1 body with intimidate, its real value is both in being able to hit your opponent’s hand as well as being a free morbid trigger. And right about here is where we see the flood of creatures that care about other creatures dying truly begin. The Woodland Sleuth gives you card advantage when her morbid is triggered by returning a creature (at random) from your graveyard to hand. The Festerhide Boar goes from being a 3/3 to a much more sexier 5/5. And while the Lumberknot has a more permanent approach to the concept- whenever any creature on the board dies, it gets a +1/+1 counter. Certainly beginning as a four-mana 1/1 is quite a handicap, and it will take three creatures dying before you start to see some real return on your investment, but the Lumberknot is a finisher that you can grow yourself. The deck gives you two of each of these cards.
At the top of the curve we continue to see robust beaters with death triggers. The Hollowhenge Scavenger is a beefy 4/5 body that can bring along a sizable life bump, while the Morkrut Banshee gives you a free Grasp of Darkness when played after something has died. As a 4/4, she’s no slouch in the red zone either. You also get two of each. of these. Thesingleton 2/4 Somberwald Spider gives you a morbid twist for one more mana than a Giant Spider– the ability to start life as a 4/6 rather than the customary 2/4. Finally, the deck’s alpha predator, the Moldgraf Monstrosity, fills in the gap as the deck’s second rare card. As an 8/8 trampler for seven mana it’s already fairly strong, and when it dies you get two free creatures back. It’s a steep mana cost, but the deck has some ramping options to help get you there.
Between Life and Death
The modest noncreature support package in Deathly Dominion focuses on answering two specific needs: ramp and removal. Because of the higher pricetag of a number of the deck’s beaters, there are a pair each of Rampant Growth and Caravan Vigil– the latter of which takes advantage of morbid as well. These two cards provide a nice study in the subtleties of design. While Caravan Vigil may cost one mana less, its ability to put the land on the battlefield is conditional. Still, if that condition is met, you get the land untapped, unlike Rampant Growth where you can’t use it until next turn.
The removal suite is somewhat lacking, though of course having a pair of Morkrut Banshees and the Ambush Viper are intended to smooth things out somewhat. There’s the aforementioned singleton Doom Blade, a pair of Dead Weights, and a Prey Upon. Every one of these is conditional or restrained in some way, so you’ll often find that the deck will do most of its dirty work in the red zone. There’s also a singleton Naturalize for artifcats or enchantments.
The last three cards are more general in nature. There’s an Altar’s Reap to help refill your hand, as well as giving you another opportunity to trigger morbid when you need it. Same with the Demonmail Hauberk, an equipment whose quip cost is the sacrifice of a creature. Finally, with so many things trundling off to the graveyard it only makes sense to give you a little retrieval, so you have recourse to one copy of Make a Wish.
So there you have it- Green-heavy beats with some Black removal and trickery, wrapped around the theme of death and dying. We’ll take Deathyl Dominion into battle to see how it holds up against opposition, and report back in two days. See you then!