Innistrad: Spectral Legions Review (Part 1 of 2)
One of the most common White/Blue archetypes also happens to be one of the game’s least interesting when it comes to Intro Packs. Although it’s hard to argue against the enduring recurrence of the popular ‘skies’ deck, there often isn’t a whole lot that can give the strategy a unique and intriguing flavour. Its not that Wizards hasn’t tried. Alara Reborn’s Legion Aloft was the first of this type, and it gave the skies strategy an artifact theme. Still, it was a bit of a hodge-podge amalgamation of defender creatures and gimmicky ones like the Aven Mimeomancer.
Worldwake next tried to get in on the act with Flyover, which featured a synergy between a high number of flyers and the Archon of Redemption, which gave you life for each one. Even the nonflyer support contingent of cards like the Surrakar Banisher and Kor Cartographer could get in on the action thanks to the Wind Drake, but overall the deck couldn’t shake a somewhat pedestrian feel. Outside of the Archon, cards like Apex Hawks and Lightkeeper of Emeria were serviceable, but not especially exciting. It felt more like ‘a collection of cards’ rather than a deck, which is a fair charge to level to most anything without Vampires in it from Zendikar and Worldwake.
Blue/White Skies was given another shot for Magic 2011, with the Power of Prophecy deck. Featuring the scry mechanic backed up by the Conundrum Sphinx, the deck had a much more cohesive feel to it. You had scrying cards to fiddle with the top card of your library, and the Sphinx to abuse that knowledge. There were evasive creatures, solid defensive options, and plenty of tappers and tempo plays. If Power of Prophecy didn’t feel like a pure Skies deck, that’s probably because it wasn’t- the air was just one of the routes its creatures used to get in for damage, and there was enough cards without flying to justify the inclusion of a Mighty Leap. A similar approach was taken for Magic 2012’s Mystical Might. On the surface it seemed glossed as the “Illusions deck,” but nearly half of its creatures had flying. As for the other half, there was no Mighty Leap this time around, but it did have Levitation.
That brings us to the latest offering in the series of Blue/White ‘Skies’ decks, and the most innovative thus far- Innistrad’s Spectral Legions. Previously there hadn’t been a lot of synergy between flying creatures- they simply had a particular evasive ability in common, and were formidable in large numbers when your opponent couldn’t block them. The step forward here is in making the deck tribal. A nearly all-Spirit deck is bound to have some very intriguing synergies and interactions. Let’s take the deck apart and see how this tribal element plays into the theme.
The Screams of the Avenged
One of the common characteristics of skies decks is their cost- there’s always a premium for evasion, so these decks tend to hit their stride right around the midgame. Let’s take a look at the deck’s creature curve:
No exception here, it seems! Still, the deck does have some solid early-game options that can help buy you time until your main threats can come on-line. The first of these is the Doomed Traveler. A creature in the “self-replacing” mould similar to the Tukatongue Thallid and Myr Sire, the Doomed Traveler can pop to spawn a 1/1 flyer, a case where the sequel is actually better than the original. Given the tribal component of the deck, even when drawn late-game the card is not entirely a dead draw- simply use the Human to chump-block and voila! Another spirit.
Next up we have a pair of Spectral Riders at the two-drop slots. They don’t fly, but are evasive in their own way through intimidate. The first White creature ever printed with the ability, they’ll have little trouble slipping past most defenses.
It’s at the three-drop slots, though, where things begin to come together and take shape. A trio of flying Spirits start to give you presence in the air, and the deck offers you two of each. The Chapel Geist is the most robust, though it is also the hardest to cast (requiring two mana from one colour). A 2/3 flyer, it should be able to provide both a solid defensive option as well as some offensive presence in the sky. The same can be said for the Voiceless Spirit, whose relative fragility (1 toughness) is compensated by its first strike. Finally, the Lantern Spirits offer a 2/1 flyer in Blue, with a self-Unsummon ability at-will. This trick is fairly useful, making the Lantern Spirit somewhat protected against removal and even allows it to Fog your opponent’s best attacker. Simply block, pull it back to hand before damage is dealt, and recast. To be certain, at four mana this trick is pricey, but in a pinch it can buy you time to find a more permanent solution,and versatility is never a bad thing.
Heading into the four-drop slot we find a trio of Moon Herons to lead us off. An otherwise unassuming 3/2 flyer, their relatively high power gives them some real punch. You also have a pair of Mausoleum Guards, 2/2 Humans which- like the Doomed Traveler- replace themselves with a pair of 1/1 Spirits. So far we have a number of Spirits who have little in common besides evasion and a creature type, but as we head to the top of the curve the real synergy of the deck will become more evident.
Much like the Veteran Swordsmith and Veteran Armorsmith in Magic 2010, there are a pair of Spirits which in tandem team up to give a blanket +1/+1 to all of their select creature type. The Gallows Warden is your defensive option, while the Battleground Geist matches for offensive power. Next we have the Geist-Honored Monk, who not only arrives with a pair of 1/1 Spirits in tow but who also has her power and toughness decided by the number of creatures you control. Despite having vigilance, this really isn’t the strongest option here. While a natural flavour fit, you’ll need three other creatures in play to feel like she’s a real threat, and the lack of flying makes her endlessly chumpable. A much stronger threat here is your foil premium rare, the Angel of Flight Alabaster. Not only is she a credible aerial threat as a 4/4, but she provides you with potential card advantage with her recursive ability- all that, and easier to cast than the Monk, too.
Shield of Unimpeachable Purity
The noncreature support element of Spectral Legions is fairly strong. For one, the removal suite is comparatively robust when weighed against the underwhelming packages some of Innistrad’s other Intro Pack decks contain. A pair of Rebukes offer pinpoint removal against any attacker, while the old standby Pacifism gets a couple of inclusions here as well. Finally, for tempo advantage and removal prevention, you have a couple of Unsummons. Finally, there’s one more card that’s a bit harder to quantify- Ghostly Possession. By creating a virtually indestructible defensive creature, you can either take out your opponent’s best beater (at a cost), or offer up one of your own Spirits to become a potentially massive damage soak. In that sense, it straddles the categories of removal and creature augmentation.
Not that there isn’t adequate representation of both. While there’s plenty of removal, you also have a number of auras to upgrade your creature army. A pair of Divine Favors both buff your creature as well as your life total, while a Curiosity turns any one of your creatures into a Thieving Magpie. This is where your Spectral Rider really shines, though it will do well on most any evasive body. A Spirit Mantle provides a small upgrade to power (+1/+1), but offers protection from creatures making it virtually unkillable in combat. Finally, Lifelink imbues its target with its namesake ability, helping you keep your life total well-padded. This is largely a take-it-or-leave-it field, as auras are frequently invitations for you to be two-for-one’d, though in the removal-light environment of Innistrad you’re likely to get a bit more mileage out of them.
As for the rest, you have a combat trick in Moment of Heroism, granting a small pump and lifelink, as well as some countermagic via Negate and Lost in the Mist. Lost in the Mist seems rather weak here- its a combination of two effects you’ll typically want precise timing on, but that seldom go together. Still, it can help set up an alpha strike by removing a key defender before an all-in swing, countering whatever it is they thought to cast. Finally, a pair of Midnight Hauntings up your Spirit counts, offering a pair of 1/1 flyers for three mana.
With this final Innistrad deck having gone under the microscope, we’ll be taking our leave of this dread plane soon… but not before we’ve had a chance to examine how it performs in the field. Check back in two days’ time, and we’ll return with our notes on the battle.