Conflux: Grixis Shambling Army Review (Part 1 of 2)
2009’s Conflux had a difficult act to follow. The large set of the block- Shards of Alara- had repeated Ravnica’s trick of tying storyline and theme together with distinct colour combinations, though this time they were in three-colour “shards” rather than two-colour “guilds.”
Each shard consisted of a primary colour and its two allied colours, and each had its own unique and distinct mechanical identity. And therein lies the difficulty- given that landscape, how do you add a mechanic without upsetting the equilibrium?
For Magic, the second set is often a difficult balance to strike. The designers need to preserve enough of the elements and themes that they began in the first set of the block to make it immediately recognisable, but there also must be enough innovation and novelty to make it more than just an extension of the first. Scars of Mirrodin block did this quite well. The second set, Mirrodin Besieged, took the major mechanical arcs of the set- infect and metalcraft, and added to them two new mechanics with a strong flavour element to the “war-torn” feel of the middle set. As a result, battle cry and living weapon were added to the Magic player’s arsenal. The latter was clearly the favourite for some time, at least up until Stoneforge Mystic was banned and Batterskull’s stock began to fall. Meanwhile, battle cry still makes its presence known from time to time, usually represented in Constructed play by either the Hero of Bladehold or Oxid Ridge.
The challenge, then, was to break new ground mechanically, but do so in a way that didn’t tie the developers down to oversaturating the field of play with more and more complex mechanics. The mechanic of each shard went largely unchanged. There were thirteen creatures with unearth in Shards of Alara and six in the smaller Conflux, and each had a variety across rarities and were attached both to vanilla creatures as well as to those which had an enters-the-battlefield effect you might want to get back later, like Rotting Rats or Scourge Devil. Bant’s exalted mechanic was actually placed on an enchantment the first time around, but limited to creatures on the second. Thus, if the core mechanical identities of the five shards were to be preserved, what did that leave for mechanical innovation?
Unlike other sets which might have a couple of new keywords to introduce to the lexicon, much of what was happening in Conflux was going on rather subtly and behind-the-scenes. The ‘new mechanic’ for the set was actually an old mechanic brought back from the archives and formally given a name: domain. A tweak on cycling was introduced that let you go fetch a basic land rather than simply discarding the cycled card and drawing another one- just the ticket for mana fixing in this heavily-multicolour block. And the rest of the design movement dealt more with what kinds of cards each shard contained, and how they interacted with one another. This is best described in a paragraph from Mark Rosewater in his Making Magic column on Conflux:
The other cool thing from a design standpoint was that in Shards we could focus on what each world did for itself. For Conflux we were able to start looking at what each world could do to hurt the other worlds. In fact, one of the fun parts about building each shard was allowing weaknesses that came from the color not knowing its enemies existed. Another example from Esper—when the people were trying to improve themselves they chose to evolve into something that to them was the most indestructible thing they could be: artifacts. In a white-blue-black world, there isn’t much artifact destruction. Come Conflux, they get to learn about red and green. It turns out these two colors are really good at destroying artifacts. Oops.
You may recall from our last round of reviews for Shards of Alara that Grixis was quite the nasty place to be. Not only was it environmentally menacing, with piles of bones beneath your feet and dead things shambling around everywhere looking for the last scraps of the living, but its Intro Deck Grixis Undead was a force to be reckoned with. Heavy on removal and filled with resilient creatures for whom the graveyard was only a rest stop rather than a final destination, can Grixis Shambling Army capture that same brutally effective strategy and give it a few new twists?
The Ripe Smell of Life
Compared with the creature curve of Grixis Undead, we see a touch more speed here with a couple more two-drops and less four-drops, though it also loads up the back-end where the first deck was thinner. We begin with the two-drops and the humble Dregscape Zombie. A natural carryover from Undead, the Zombie gives you your first taste of unearth in the deck. A 2/1 for two mana, it is often best used to trade out with an enemy creature, for unlike your enemy’s hapless victim your creature will be returning for an encore later. There’s also a pair of Zombie Outlanders here, a new card from Conflux. This is a bit of a disappointing inclusion, for no reason other than protection effects tend to be some of the less-fun mechanics in preconstructed decks. Useless if you’re not playing the hated colour, and brutal to deal with when you are, there is some relief here at least in the fact that while each of Conflux’s five Intro Decks carries a colour-hoser of this “Outlander” cycle, each as a three-colour deck (and one five) has more success than most at neutralising the threat.
Next we come to the loaded three-drop cycle, and see some more of Conflux’s quiet innovation in the Sedraxis Alchemist. Unlike some cards in Shards of Alara such as the Wild Nacatl, which rewarded you for playing with different types of land, Conflux has cards that instead look at the colour of permanents you have in play. This may seem to be almost a semantic difference, but when you look at Conflux’s place in history it does make a bit more sense. The previous block- Lorwyn/Shadowmoor- was filled with hybrid cards, cards that could be cast for one of two different colours but still counted as a permanent of both. This gave a leg up for cards like the Sedraxis Alchemist, who now had a larger variety of permanents to work with. In the Alchemist’s case, ‘working with’ means bouncing a nonland permanent back to its owner’s hand, a solid tempo play as a reward for having something Blue on the battlefield. The deck gives you two of them.
You also have a 4/4 bruiser clocking in here at three mana in the Brackwater Elemental, but with a twist- you can only attack or block with it once before you have to sacrifice it. Again thanks to unearth, this is less of a drawback than it seems, and it’ll often make a solid ambusher out of the graveyard after your opponent has had a chance to forget that it’s lurking in there. Meanwhile, the Kederekt Creeper shows you what you’re capable of getting when you mix all three colours together- a 2/3 body (the higher toughness often seen in Blue creatures) with deathtouch (Black) and blocking restrictions (Red).
Finally, you have the makings of an air force with a trio of Kathari. A pair of Screechers come equipped with unearth, while a Pestilent model instead has deathtouch and an optional first strike ability which complements the deathtouch nicely. That said, the Pestilent Kathari is still a three-mana 1/1- not the most impressive body in the deck, and somewhat better suited to hanging back on defense unless augmented by an aura or equipment, both of which are present here.
The deck’s lone four-drop, the Fire-Field Ogre, is also a carryover from Grixis Undead, and is no less of a beating the second time around. Its lopsidedness might have some vulnerability- it trades with a Runeclaw Bear and dies to Shock– but the first strike makes at least the first condition irrelevant. This is a real bruiser, and will often be difficult for your opponent to answer. Its unearth makes it a threat from beyond the grave as well.
Finally we have the deck’s closers, the very top of the mana curve. A pair of Grixis Slavedrivers deliver six power for six mana, though it’s on the installment plan- you only get the 2/2 Zombie when the 4/4 Slavedriver leaves play. The unearth on the Slavedriver is even better as this is a “leaves play” rather than “is placed in the graveyard” trigger, so you’ll be able to make a Zombie twice. Note that his unearth cost is nicely lowered from his casting cost, meaning he’s easier to play from the graveyard than hand.
This synergizes nicely with our next card, the Extractor Demon. One of the deck’s two rares, the Demon allows you to mill two off of any library whenever another creature leaves play. There isn’t enough mill support in the deck to make this a viable win condition; rather, it’s here for you to mill yourself. Much like the recently-reviewed Eldritch Onslaught from Innistrad, this deck is happy to see you throw perfectly good cards from your library to your graveyard as it gives you more unearth targets to work with- in essence, increasing your cards in hand. Finally, the Blood Tyrant takes the role of the deck’s foil premium card. A 5/5 that will swing in for the first time as a 7/7, he’s a must-answer beatstick that’s even nastier in multiplayer play.
Death is Always Violent
Supporting the deck’s creature complement is a very solid supporting package with little wasted space. As you’d expect from Grixis, the burna and removal is abundant and varied. You have a Terror, a killspell staple since the very beginning of the game. There arr also a pair of Shocks for applying a little direct damage. A 10th Edition print, this was the last appearance of Shock for a time as Lightning Bolt was brought back, though that has run its course and we’re presently back to the 2-damage variety.
An Agony Warp gives us delightful flexibility for a two-mana spell. It can effectively give any creature -3/-3, or can be used to blunt an attack by killing off one attacker and Fogging another- a solid value. And if the board is being overrun with pests, you have access to an Infest to clear off the smaller ones. With many of your creatures having unearth, this will often harm your opponent more than you, even if you have to sustain some friendly fire, though as with all board sweeper’s you’ll want to exercise caution on deploying it.
From there we have a pair of creature augments, one of each type. The Bone Saw is about as simply as it gets for equipment- a zero-mana play, one-mana equip +1/+0 bonus. This is best used on your Pestilent Kathari or Fire-Field Ogre, where it can augment their first strike capabilities, but is useful anywhere. That said, it probably isn’t worth a card slot here. Elder Mastery, on the other hand, is a brutal beating waiting to happen. Capable of turning even the lowliest creature into a surprise flying hasty Specter, this only needs to connect once to offset the potential card disadvantage that comes with auras. Creature enchantments do get a bit of a bad rap due to the fear of getting two-for-one’d, but in a preconstructed environment where removal isn’t as dependable as constructed, you tend to get more mileage out of them. In that sense, it’s rather more like Limited, and Elder Mastery can pivot a game on its axis in one card.
The fincal card here is Absorb Vis, and the deck gives you two of them. This is an interesting card. On its own, it would hardly be playable- an 8 point swing in life totals is nice, but for six mana and a card there are other things I’d rather have. What makes this a superb inclusion is the fact that it essentially pulls double-duty as a weakened Rampant Growth in colours that very seldom if ever get these sorts of effects. While this does represent some bleeding of the colour pie, it was deemed necessary to the greater good of the set, where three-colour shards were being pushed, and here it gives this card the flexibility it needs to be valuable. Draw it early? Cycle it out and help ramp your mana curve. Draw it late, and drop it on your opponent full-cast.
In addition to the basic landcycling options, Grixis Shambling Army comes equipped with some other options for manafixing in the form of nonbasic lands. A pair of Terramorphic Expanses will help balance out your needs, and there are few sights more welcome in your opening grip than a Crumbling Necropolis. Aside from that, the deck adheres to the standard formula of 7-3-3, with the majority of lands supporting the primary colour of the shard (here Black), and the others offering splash support.
In our next piece we’ll be taking the 41-card Grixis Shambling Army and putting it through its paces to see how it stacks up. Join us for the results and a final rating!