Premium Deck Series: Graveborn Review (Part 1 of 2)
If you want to get grandiose and toss fancy titles about, Magic’s Classical Age of Preconstruction lasted about five years, from 1996-2001. Magic was a new game at the time, and we were still a year away from 1997’s Tempest- the dawn of the Theme Deck, the ancestor of the modern Intro Pack.
The product that kicked off Wizards’ foray into the realm of preconstructed decks wasn’t a Theme Deck, but rather what you might call a premium or specialty release. 1996’s Rivals Quick Start Set contained a quartet of preconstructed decks, and was aimed at the novice player. More advanced releases would follow each year in succession beginning in 1998.
Anthologies was a two-deck release designed to commemorate the game’s five-year anniversary. Rivals got a conceptual makeover with 1999’s Battle Royale, another set of four decks geared towards multiplayer mayhem. Holiday shoppers in December of 2000 could pick up a copy of Beatdown for the gamer in their life, a pair of decks tailored around big, fat creatures and the players who love them. 2001 saw the release of Deckmasters: Garfield vs Finkel, another opposing pair of decks designed by and for a duel between legends Richard Garfield (the game’s creator) and Jon Finkel (the game’s best player of the day, and to many of all time).
If these decks had one thing in common it was that they had very little in common. They came in big boxes, were each an individual release (as opposed to being part of a series), and were entirely self-contained. And after 2001, they stopped being produced altogether. We would then enter a drought- sustained along only by the Theme Decks each set brought with it- until the fateful day of 16 November, 2007. At last, the Magic world was treated to another boxed set consisting of two decks designed to be pitted against one another.
Duel Decks: Elves vs Goblins was a radical new product, and one that proved to be quite popular. Like some of its ancestors, it consisted of a pair of themed decks, but this time it was determined to be part of a series. Nearly a year later we would see its successor, Duel Decks: Jace vs Chandra, a release which set into play the alternating pattern of “faction” versus “planeswalker” decks which would last until Wizards announced it would be swapping the release order with the forthcoming Duel Decks: Venser vs Koth.
The success of the Duel Decks could only have been encouraging to Wizards, who had floated another new series (From the Vaults) in August of 2008, then wholly embraced the premium preconstructed market. In April of 2009 we saw Duel Decks: Divine vs Demonic, followed a few months later with the September launch of Planechase, the first of a line of products designed to support variant Magic formats. Wizards wasn’t through yet. With the players enthusiastically embracing this Preconstruction Renaissance, they decided to tap into the love of foils and reprints and for the first time ever offer an all-foil deck.
2009’s Premium Deck Series cannily selected one of the game’s most popular tribes (the Slivers) to helm its flagship launch (for more on that early history, read here). And while sales of Slivers fell short of expectations by most accounts, there was still enough player support for a second release. Almost a year later to the day, Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning followed suit. An all-foil mono-Red burn deck, Fire & Lightning looked to broaden the appeal of the product through its election of reprints. No heavily parasitic deck here, no, there was something for everyone- the Cube players, the Commander players- even the Legacy players had a card or two they could get behind, and this helped justify the $34.99 pricetag in a way that the Slivers struggled to.
To Wizards, it was clear that they had found the winning formula. Aim for cross-sector appeal by offering choice reprints in black-bordered foil versions, and you had a product that would move off the shelves both for its deck as well as the sum of its parts! That brings us to this year’s offering in the series: Premium Deck Series: Graveborn.
Learn to Earn Death
Graveborn, as the name certainly suggests, like Fire & Lightning before it takes a standard Magic archetype as its basis. Last year’s model was Red burn, and now- fittingly with Innistrad upon us- we have a graveyard reanimator strategy. This follows a very simple formula- take something enormously fat and difficult to deal with, and get around its matching pricetag by chucking it into the graveyard and then using a cheaper spell to reanimate it into play. Once that’s accomplished, your opponent typically will be on a very short clock, and must either kill you or your beastie before the last few grains trickle out through the bottom of the hourglass.
One facet not unusual in such decks is a willingness to look at all five colours for suitable creatures, under the logic that if you’re not going to bother to cast them anyway, what difference does it make what colour they are? Indeed, Graveborn boasts very few creatures that don’t fit into this mould, so it certainly indicates a very focused objective. Indeed, there is very little wasted space here. For instance, your earliest creatures are a pair of one-drop Putrid Imps. Sure, the threshold ability is nice enough, and being able to give them evasion is useful, but their real purpose is to give you a discard outlet for cards in your hand. You can’t start reanimating until you’ve got something in the graveyard, so Putrid Imp’s main purpose becomes quite clear. That it can also chump-block in a pinch to buy you some time to get your engine on-line is an added bonus.
Next up we have the Weatherlight reprint Hidden Horror. Like the Imp, the nature of this deck turns its drawback into a bonus, and a 4/4 body for three mana is an excellent deal, especially in Black. Finally, there’s a single four-drop ion the Faceless Butcher. Another duel-purpose creature, the Butcher serves an altogether different purpose- namely, that of removal. The predecessor to today’s Fiend Hunter, this singleton Nightmare Horror exists to give you some added options for nullifying your opponent’s threats on the ground. Like many combo and combo-esque decks, Graveborn can be vulnerable if it doesn’t manage to start its engine early, so you’re going to need some removal to keep the red zone relatively unthreatening until you can bring your fattie out.
And speaking of the deck’s fatties, you have plenty of options here- any one of which can win you the game. A Twisted Abomination is perhaps the least of the lot. A 5/3 regenerator which can help you build your manabase in a punch thanks to its swampcycling, the Abomination is one of only two closers that you can hope to hardcast. The other, the Avatar of Woe, is quite a bit more expensive (unless its alternate discount condition is met), but significantly more lethal. The Avatar is enjoying quite the resurgence as late- once the primary price-driver of the expensive Distress Theme Deck from 2000’s Prophecy, it’s been featured in Archenemy as well as Commander, and now it gets the foil treatment in Graveborn.
Next up is the Sphinx of the Steel Wind. Another beating-in-a-box, the Sphinx has the distinction of being the set’s designated mythic rare card. While Slivers had one (Sliver Overlord, which was a rare in its original printing prior to the days of mythic rarity), Fire & Lightning didn’t bother, so it’s nice to see one appear here considering the deck’s price. From the same block (Shards of Alara) we also have the Inkwell Leviathan. For all the reasons we pilloried its inclusion in Esper Air Assault, it’s a perfect fit here- big, brutal, and almost impossible to deal with. And that mana cost? Who cares!
The fearsome Terastodon gives us a representative of more recent times (Worldwake), and like the Avatar of Woe packs in some utility in addition to its girth. Being able to destroy up to three noncreature permanents is essentially like a triple-casting of Beast Within, and can solve pesky planeswalkers your opponent has deployed, or lock them out of a colour of their manabase is fragile or faltering. Crosis, the Purger is a Grixis-coloured legend from 2000’s Invasion, and can hose your opponent’s hand. The Verdant Force is a Tempest card that saw reprinting in Planechase, and the horde of 1/1 Saprolings it generates are useful fodder for chump blocking or for sacrifice effects (and there are a few). Finally, Ravnica’s Blazing Archon shuts down your opponent’s red-zone-based strategy altogether. Though that means you’ll have more defenders to contend with, the Archon’s large size and flying mean that you’ll often be able to wrap the game up if they can’t quickly kill it.
The Scrape of Shovels
And so we’ve met the deck’s cast of characters (and for more on them, check out the writeup on the mothership). Now we’ll be going under the hood to see the cards which drive the deck’s engine. Generally speaking, you have three different classes of spells at your disposal: those that get your creatures into your graveyard, those that get them out of it, and disruption. The disruption is simple- you have a trio of Duresses to thin out your opponent’s hand. Aside from that, everything else falls more or less squarely into one of the other categories (with some pleasant side effects). Let’s begin with ways to get your finishers into the graveyard.
As mentioned above, you have some creature options here in the form of Putrid Imps and Hidden Horrors. If you had to rely on those you might be kept waiting awhile, but the good news is you have recourse to a further nine other cards that can assist you in your grim task. The most basic of these are cards that do nothing else but let you put other cards directly from your library to the graveyard. Towards that end, Graveborn offers you a pair of Buried Alives and an Entomb. One might rightly wonder why the Entomb is rare while Buried Alive is uncommon, given that the latter is essentially a triple-copy of the former (three creature cards, three mana). The difference is more subtle than you might think, and you see it come into play in comparisons like Hada Freeblade against Oran-Rief Survivalist (in Ally strategies) and Reckless Waif versus Gatstaf Shepherd (in Werewolf ones). It might seem odd to have a weaker effect at a higher commonality, but it’s not based on what the card lets you do, but rather on when it lets you do it. Entomb is a first-turn pitch, which can set you up for a turn-2 reanimation of some hideous beater. Imagine being on the play, bringing out a second-turn Terastodon and nuking both your opponent’s lands as well as fielding a 9/9? Such starts are perilously difficult for any foe to recover from- and that’s precisely the point. Buried Alive might get you a trio of cards into the graveyard, but not until later in the game.
Our next group of spells are ones that have beneficial effects while helping you fill your graveyard. Since your deck’s noncreature spells are so tightly focused, the only way you’ll be seeing critical functions like creature removal is through those that also contribute somehow to your deck’s overall goal. Sickening Dreams acts as a form of board-sweeper, with the ability to clear off a number of your opponent’s creatures- or even finish off a crippled opponent. At the same time, it’s a solid outlet for getting critical creature cards into the graveyard to await reanimation. A pair of Last Rites do much the same, but rather than damaging the board they hit out at the hand of your opponent. Continuing the emerging subtheme of discard, there’s a singleton Cabal Therapy. A versatile card, you can either strike at your opponent’s cards in hand, or turn the spell on yourself to enable the discard of one of your bombs. The flashback cost is somewhat painful in this creature-light deck, but the Verdant Force’s Saproling spawn are perfect for the task! Finally, a Zombie Infestation gives you the opportunity to discard when needed, and rewards you for doing so with 2/2 Zombies- also perfect fodder for sacrifice.
With all the trouble you’ve gone through to find the big bombs in your deck and launder them unplayed into the graveyard, for our final segment we’ll want to look at how Gaveborn will let you cheat them into play. Like the previous category- ways to get your bombs into the graveyard without them ever touching the battlefield- this objective is well-supported with a total of eleven cards to choose from.
Your cheapest option- at least in terms of mana- is a Reanimate. Another reprint from Tempest, this one comes at a potentially steep cost in life, but also gives the opportunity for a frighteningly quick start. Who cares if you’ve just dropped yourself to 11 if your opponent now has an Inkwell Leviathan to contend with? Moving on from there, the further good news is that another half dozen cards of this class only cost two mana. Exhume is one of those classic cards that justifies its cheap cost with a “balanced” effect, one that on the face of it would seem to benefit you and your opponent equally. Of course, if you’re casting this early it’s entirely likely your opponent’s graveyard is empty, while yours… isn’t. You also get a trio of Animate Dead, a card which hasn’t seen print since the Fifth Edition way back in 1997! A classic chestnut of templating frustration, Wizards feels they’ve nailed the verbiage now and that the spell should mechanically function as intended within the rules of the game. Of course, none of that much matters when you’re using it to power out your opponent’s premature demise.
Urza’s Saga contributes a pair of Diabolic Servitudes, a reusable form of reanimation that can help you bring out your next crushing finisher if your opponent has the luck of dealing with your first one. You also have a returning sorcery in the form of a Dread Return. Although it’s casting cost is a touch steep, its flashback can be a virtual steal if you have a few Zombie or Saproling tokens running about with nothing better to do.
By way of a manabase, Graveborn offers you 21 Swamps, and a trio of nonbasics. The Crystal Vein may not tap for coloured mana, but it offsets that limitation with the ability to be sacrificed for two- perfect in a pinch! The Ebon Stronghold does much the same, but since it gives you coloured mana its drawback is to come into play tapped. Finally, there’s a single Polluted Mire, which offsets its comes-into-play tapped drawback by having cycling, so you can flush it if you no longer need it to draw something else.
On top of all that, Graveborn also offers you an attractive deck box (foil, naturally), as well as a “spindown” life counter. As someone who has a ton of these already, it’s nice to get one that’s not one of the usual five freckled colours. Graveborn’s d20 is a pleasing translucent grey. Altogether, it seems a fine and attractive package… but how does it play? We’ll be taking Graveborn into the field for the conclusion of the review, and pitting it against Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning. Will last year’s foils burn it out, or will Graveborn harness the power of undeath to crush its opposition? We’ll find out in two days.