Innistrad: Deathfed Review (Part 1 of 2)
In our last feature, a review of Hold the Line, we mentioned the intriguing place in preconstructed history occupied by Innistrad. Hold the Line was the first time a mono-coloured Event Deck had been of a repeat colour (following the mono-White War of Attrition from New Phyrexia). Left unsaid at the time was a similar factoid: this is also the first time we’ve seen the repeat of a multi-colour deck as well- and the first for a three-colour deck. The first Event Decks for Mirrodin Besieged had something of an experimental feel to them. Like any new product, there was a certain amount of ‘growing pains’ associated with them as they adapated to the market, and the market adapted to them. The first pair released consisted of the mono-Red Into the Breach, a deck in the ‘Kuldotha Red’ archetype of the day, as well as the Blue/Black Into the Breach was built for speed and aggression, while the more ponderous Infect & Defile was instead optimised for the mid-game, packed with more expensive cards like the Phyrexian Vatmother, Corpse Cur, and Corrupted Conscience.
Making a long story short (for more detail, you might wish to read here), the most effective Event Decks- designed to be competitive in the Constructed arena- looked to make up for their weaknesses in card selection by adopting fast, aggressive and mono-coloured strategies. Infect & Defile looked to be the sole representative of a species that became extinct. Obviously with Deathfed, with many more Event Decks beneath their belt and more experience to draw from, Wizards has firmly announced that they feel multi-coloured decks are viable.
So what changed? For a deck like Deathfed to be released- which it bears repeating that it not only returned to the multi-colour archetype but actually upped the ante by adding a third- at least one of two things must have altered. Either Wizards feels that a better deck than Infect & Defile can be built, or the actual environment the deck is being released into has been changed. We’ll get to the first point in a moment, but let’s begin with a look at the latter.
With New Phyrexia being the third set in a block, the Standard environment of the time was nearly fully-formed. Sure, you still had the coming overlap of Magic 2011 and Magic 2012, which was a field day for Red Deck Wins archetypes (Lightning Bolt and Grim Lavamancer? Yes Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus!), but overall most of what there was to see had already been seen. It was a mature world that Infect & Defile entered into, and it didn’t stand much of a chance. Unlike its quicker sibling, it needed time to make full use of its quota of seven rares and other support cards, and often that time wasn’t there. Down comes a Titan, or down comes a Squadron Hawk with a shiny mythic in its claw, and Infect & Defile was caught back-footed.
By contrast, Deathfed may or may not be the right deck, but it certain comes at the right time. For one thing, it’s a much younger and smaller environment to work in. All of Zendikar block is gone, and Magic 2011 is rotated out alongside it. Observers of the Standard format note that the deck choices of preference tend to turn towards the security of aggro whenever faced with such uncertainty, so perhaps a deck armed with some stalling tactics might be able to carve out some breathing room for itself. This is doubly so when the new set, Innistrad, is designed to offer a slower format than the ones previous, so the disadvantage a slower deck faces in the early game is somewhat alleviated. It is in this landscape that Deathfed looks to do its dirty work.
The strategy insert for Deathfed has this to say about the deck:
Winning… requires some patience. Your deck is designed with the late game in mind… Your biggest strength is a well-stocked graveyard, and all of your cards will give you an incremental advantage while fueling your graveyard. Once your engine is up and running, it’s very difficult for any opponent to stop.
And that’s the secret to Deathfed. Fill up your graveyard while abusing cards that get more powerful for you doing so. Not a bad idea on paper for a deck that essentially trades the early and mid-game for dominance at the end. Let’s break down the deck’s 75 and see how it looks to achieve this.
Literally Made for Battle
The use of the word engine above is perfectly fitting, for like any engine this takes a fuel source and turns it into energy output. For Deathfed, that fuel source is very specific: creature cards in your graveyard. It doesn’t care if any other type of card ends up there, though it does contain a number of cards with the flashback mechanic so that if in the course of you trying to stock your fuel supply a few of them end up there, you’ll still be able to make use of the spell.
Towards this end, the creatures of Deathfed can be divided into three specific groups: enablers, graveyard beaters, and miscellany. The enablers are those cards which help move cards from your library to your graveyard on an industrial scale. No occasional milling here, this is a deck with purpose! It’s also a deck which happily acknowledges the expendable nature of many of its cards. So what if the creatures die, that’s just more in the graveyard. Thus we come to our first creature, the Armored Skaab. These are custom-built to the purpose of stalling and self-milling. Their 4 toughness means they’ll be able to help blunt your opponent’s grand-based attack, while they mill four cards when they come into play. Deathfed naturally packs in a full playset of this critical utility creature.
Next up is a trio of Viridian Emissaries. Their 2/1 body is fine to offer in a trade for an attacker, as they are really designed to die. In doing so, they’ll fetch you a basic land which goes directly onto the battlefield, and are another body in the boneyard. In most cases, spells with flashback are more expensive to recur than to play, so the deck- while not being particularly greedy- can always find use for extra mana down the road. Our final creature in the enabler category is a pair of Merfolk Looters. Unlike the Emissaries these do you more good alive than dead, for they’ll help improve your card quality as well as stock your graveyard at the same time. This is the “incremental advantage” Wizards mentioned in their insert- every card gives you a little extra. Add up enough of these ‘extras’ and its almost like drawing extra cards.
Next up are your graveyard beaters. These creatures rely upon you having a robust scrapheap to be their most effective, and naturally will be stronger the longer you’re able to keep in the game. The Boneyard Wurm is the first of the two beaters represented here. Frequently a steal at only two mana, their power and toughness are directly tied into how many of your creatures have wound up dead or milled away on your watch. Like the Armored Skaab, these are so central to your strategy that you get to play with four of them. The other creature here- the rare Splinterfright– is a singleton. Essentially a hopped-up Boneyard Wurm, it brings a couple extra tricks along for its slightly higher mana cost. First, it has trample, which makes a huge difference when dealing with massive fatties beating in on your opponent- they can’t just chump-block away your biggest threat. Secondly, Splinterfright mills you for two cards every upkeep, so it essentially helps make itself bigger over time.
All of these cards cost three or less, but the deck has a full ramp package all the same with a Birds of Paradise and full set of Llanowar Elves. If the deck’s curve isn’t cripplingly high, why all the ramp? Two reasons. First, remember that speed is of the essence, even with a slower deck like Deathfed. Although tasked with a late-game strategy, the deck wants to make sure you can hit your curve every single game. Secondly, mana dorks make great chump-blockers once you’ve secured a solid manabase, and every creature in the graveyard advances the aims of the deck. Finally, the Birds have evasion, and as we’ll see this can help set your deck up for the win.
The final creatures in this last miscellaneous category are a pair of Acidic Slimes. Another born-to-die creature, these are perfect for trading with larger more expensive threats on the field of battle, and they have the ability to destroy nearly any permanent you’re likely to come up against outside of creatures and planeswalkers. If the deck’s beaters are any guide, then, this deck is happy to trout out utility dorks early, trading up with your opponent’s creatures as often as possible while filling up your graveyard. Then, once the graveyard is nice and fat, it seeks to flip the switch from defense to offense and ride a large Wurm or Splinterfright to victory. Of course, it can’t do this alone, so Deathfed also packs in a fairly substantial complement of noncreature support.
The largest component of cards here falls into the same ‘enabler’ category as the Armored Skaab did above. In short, these cards look to offer you an advantage when you play them, and a further advantage by what they leave unplayed, the fodder for the graveyard. Forbidden Alchemy is a great way to get the card you need at the moment while sending another three off to the stockpile. Its flashback means you get extra mileage out of the card even if it wound up there unplayed. Mulch, meanwhile, helps fill your hand with land, great for either rounding out your manabase or offering fresh discard targets for your Merfolk Looter. Again, cards central to your theme at the common and uncommon levels often arrive in playsets, and here you get both.
The ‘graveyard beaters’ category has its representatives here as well. First up are a pair of Bonehoards, living weapons which derive their power and toughness from the number of creatures in all graveyards- not just yours. Remember the evasion on that Birds of Paradise above? Saddle it with a Bonehoard and you have a potentially massive aerial finisher. If you’d prefer not to put all your eggs in one basket, how about in a bunch of smaller baskets? Spider Spawning can flood the board with 1/2 Spiders that can overwhelm unsuspecting or defensively-weak opponents. You get two of them here, and like Forbidden Alchemy they carry a flashback cost which is reliant upon Black mana. Indeed, these two cards are the reason for the third colour in the deck- there’s not a single actual Black card to be found.
Rounding out the graveyard-dependant offerings here is a singleton Gnaw to the Bone. Ordinarily lifegain isn’t worth a look, but because this deck needs to buy time to build up its engine, a splash of it isn’t a bad idea- particularly one that ties in so strongly to Deathfed’s theme. You can be fearless in trading your life total for time knowing that you’ll be able to last a lot longer in the game once you stabilise- just be careful not to go too deeply into burn range or you might find yourself cooked before you can establish advantage.
Finally, in the miscellany category we find a pair of rares. A Green Sun’s Zenith gets you the beater you need when you need it, which will usually be one of your graveyard-dependant cards like Splinterfright to close out a game. You also have a Ratchet Bomb to offset your opponent’s numerical advantage- especially if you’re facing a token-based strategy. While head of R&D Aaron Forsythe has stated that he expects the Bomb to be relevant the entire time it is Standard-legal, the fact that it is the only piece of removal Deathfed has to offer outside of the two Acidic Slimes is troubling to say the very least. Certainly the deck is perfectly happy to chump-block critical threats rather than simply kill them, but even a pair of Doom Blades would have offered some protection against the noncombatant utility creature or something bloated up to monstrous, trampling size thanks to Kessig Wolf Run.
A Force Unto Itself
The good news is that if the maindeck of Deathfed lacks options to directly respond to threats against you, its sideboard offers some remedy. Up against some crippling artifact or enchantment-based strategy? Here’s a trio of Naturalizes. Some obese beater tearing through your defenses too quickly to stabilise? Hit it with one of your two Mind Controls and let it do your dirty work for you. Getting burned out by a quick Red deck? Mitigate the incoming fire with a couple more Gnaw to the Bones.
You also have a robust countermagic suite here which can be somewhat tailored to your particular need. A playset of Negates will cheaply neuter a noncreature threat like a boardsweeper, while aggressive Red and/or Green decks can be checked with up to four Flashfreezes. These aren’t perfect answers, but the counters in particular give you the opportunity to sculpt the game more to your liking, confident in knowing that the longer it goes, the more it plays into Deathfed’s hands.
With that, we’re done with the deck analysis of both of Innistrad’s Event Decks, and that means we’re ready to head down to the arena and pit them against one another. In our next piece we’ll be looking at a matchup from Hold the Line’s perspective, before offering some final thoughts and a score. See you then!