Odyssey: Liftoff Review (Part 1 of 2)
Just as Innistrad had its own Blue/White ‘skies’ deck, perhaps it is only appropriate that Innistrad’s predecessor, Odyssey, have the same. Of course, just like Spectral Legions, little about this deck conforms to the norm of the typical aerial deck. For one thing, Liftoff has a grand total of five fliers, which lends itself to a natural skepticism of how it can even lay claim to being a skies deck in the first place. The answer lies within the second of Odyssey’s two major mechanics. The first, flashback, was a heavy focus of the previous deck, One-Two Punch. And while it makes a cameo appearance here (a single copy of Embolden), Liftoff centers around the other, more creature-centric mechanic, threshold.
Threshold is a mechanic which has an effect contingent upon the size of your graveyard. This is actually the poster-child for a general class of mechanics, as Mark Rosewater wrote on his piece on Scars of Mirrodin’s metalcraft. In general, these types of mechanics follow a fairly predictable standard in that they present you with a creature or spell that’s slightly inefficient for its cost. Then, if a certain condition is met, they actually become more efficient than normal. Rosewater uses the card Springing Tiger as an example of threshold, and it is the perfect example to illustrate this principle. On its own it is a four-mana 3/3, which is rather poor (particularly in Green). However, under a certain condition it becomes a 5/5, which for four mana is now a good deal! The objective with decks based around these mechanics, then, is to ensure that the condition that triggers the ‘upgrade’ is on as much as possible. The longer it remains on, naturally, the greater your advantage.
It is that philosophy, then, that guides the very heart of Liftoff.
A Story Ten Fathoms Deep
There are three main camps of creatures in Liftoff, and in fairness to the deck we weren’t telling the entire story above. Yes, there are less than a half-dozen flying creatures within its 60 cards, but it might have been more forthright to say that there are only five naturally-occurring flying creatures. There’s a whole host of creatures here- the Mystics- that have the ability to sprout wings once you’ve managed to fill up your graveyard. To give the deck some context, let’s begin with the creature curve:
As is evident by the solidly consistent distribution throughout the two-to-four drop slots, the deck expects you to flourish in the midgame, keying off of a solid start on turns two or three and going from there. Let’s look at each category of creatures, as well as their role in the broader strategy of the deck.
The Air Force: The Mystics are a series of creatures that begin as rather humble Nomad Mystic subtypes- the largest of these is a 2/4. They tend towards the fairly unremarkable, though the Mystic Penitent has vigilance, while one of the deck’s two rares, the Mystic Crusader, gets protection from black and from red. Liftoff gives you one apiece of those, then five other Mystics to round out the set. You get a trio of Mystic Zealots (the four-mana 2/4’s), and a pair of Mystic Visionaries. All of them gain flying when you hit threshold, and most will gain an additional +1/+1 as well. Given their relatively cheap cost, the Mystics will be early deployments, but you’ll want to keep them from harm wherever possible. Some caution now will pay dividends later once that crucial seventh card lands in your graveyard.
As for the natural flyers, you have a singleton Angelic Wall and four Wizards. The Wall is just what it appears to be, a plain 0/4 flying stall tactic. The others carry come intriguing abilities. The pair of Cephalid Scouts are rather brittle 1/1’s, but they let you convert your land into cards later in the game when you have less need of a robust manabase. Note that the deck only gives you 21 land, so it tends to run a bit leaner than many two-colour decks. Still, this can give you some vital card draw quality later in the game, letting you cantrip away any excess lands you draw into. The pair of Aven Windreaders are considerably more robust at 3/3, and provide a reasonable mana sink for later in the game when you’ve got nothing better to do than puzzle out what your opponent has atop their library.
Threshold Enablers: A number of other creatures have another critical mission, which is to enable your Mystics (and other threashold effects) by helping to fill your graveyard. Left to your own devices, you might go an entire game and never see seven cards off to the graveyard, so there’s a definite need for some assistance in doing so. Innistrad might solve this by dedicated self-milling as we saw in Eldritch Onslaught, but here we have a more nuanced approach.
First we have a pair of Millikin. The Deranged Assistant of their day, these help with both mana production as well as graveyard filling. Next comes twin Cephalid Looters. Reprinted most recently in Zendikar as the Reckless Scholar, the Looters help improve hand quality as well as graveyard content. But if looting one card a turn isn’t quite fast enough… howabout two? With a Cephalid Broker in play, you’ll be syphoning your way through your library to your best cards, and hitting threshold in no time. Here again you have a pair to work with.
Shenanigans: The rest of Liftoff’s creatures fall into this rather broad category, but they all have something in common in that they bring a trick to the table. Want to tap down your opponent’s best attackers, or neutralise a particularly thorny defender? With a Puppeteer, Cephalid Retainer, and Nomad Decoy you can pick your poison, and the Decoy’s threshold will let you lock down twice as many. A pair of Hallowed Healers act as damage prevention- 2 at first, then 4 once you’ve attained threshold, which can shut down or greatly negate the impact of even the largest beaters you’ll likely face.
From there you have the Red-hosing Pilgrim of Justice, a reminder of a time when colour-hosers were far more prevalent than they tend to be today. The Beloved Chaplain has protection from creatures, a very rare ability in the game. Although appearing most recently in Magic 2012’s Spirit Mantle, the only other occurrences appear here and and on two cards from Judgment (Odyssey Block’s third set). Alas, with no ways to pump up his power in the deck, he’ll either be an unblockable ping every round, or an unbeatable blocker.
Finally, there are a pair of Blessed Orators. A four-mana 1/4 isn’t setting any land-speed records, but the +0/+1 bonus to all your other creatures can come in handy. Overall, your creature strategy, then, will be to deploy as many Mystics as you can qhile filling your graveyard, hitting threshold thanks to your enablers, and dominating in the air. To help you get there, the deck does have a rather diverse support package, and we’ll look at that next.
Read Between the Minds
Every prong of the Liftoff strategy is supported by at least two noncreature spells. For one, your creature-based attack is bolstered by removal and combat tricks. The deck’s strongest removal is Kirtar’s Desire, which will hold your opponent’s attackers at bay, and once you’ve reached threashold act as a Pacifism. At a mere one mana, they’re an easy inclusion here. There’s also a singleton Second Thoughts. While it cantrips, it does cost five mana, and it is also conditional upon the creature you’re wanting to remove being declared as an attacker. As for the combat tricks, there’s an Embolden to keep some of your beaters safe in combat (or to counteract burn), and a Shelter. The latter is solid, as it can act as ersatz removal (by turning a trade into a lopsided bargain), and replaces itself in your hand.
A pair of Think Tanks help with the objective of keeping your graveyard stocked, and they give you solid draw quality in the process. A Skycloud Egg acts as a mana filter, while Peek gives you just that- a quick look at your opponent’s hand. Both cards cantrip, so while neither is the most useful card you’ll find, they don’t count against you.
The last two cards here are a pair of Syncopates. It’s the only countermagic you have access to, so you may want to hold onto that Peek until you’re in position to use one. While potentially expensive, the upside is that it removes the countered spell from the game rather than helping to stock your opponent’s graveyard.
And there you have it, the skies deck that’s not- quite- a skies deck, but one that can pack a very aggressive surprise for your opponent. We’ll take the deck into battle to see how it’s tactics hold up in the face of the enemy, and report back how it performed.