Conflux: Bant on the March Review (Part 1 of 2)
Millennia ago, Alara was a plane in many ways like any other. It was whole and continuous, its mana in balance and proportion much as any other world might be. And to hear tell of it now, such a time is the stuff of myth and legend.
Perhaps a godlike entity cracked Alara into pieces to harvest its mana and resources, or perhaps it was an unexpected consequence of some world-wracking war, but however it happened Alara underwent the Sundering, and the plane was divided into fice seperate and distinct worlds, or ‘shards.’ As it happened, each world possessed a certain symmetry. They were steeped in one primary colour of mana, and the two allied colours of mana were in abundance. But of the two enemy colours there was nary a trace. It was this fact, more than any other- even the very Sundering itself- that shaped and sculpted the civilizations on each of the five worlds over the course of century after century.
And so Bant evolved as a plane of orderly virtue, where mankind coexists with Rhox and Aven and disputes between nations- while infrequent- are resolved with ritual combat between champions rather than indiscriminate bloodshed and total, destructive war. Society is rigidly structured in a caste system, giving comfort and security to the world’s inhabitants as they know their place and role in society, from the Blessed Caste at the top taking orders from Bant’s Angelic rulers to the Mortar Caste at the bottom, the workers and smallfolk whose labours allow society to actually function. And while it’s true that Bant society has become a bit stale and stagnant, calcified and rigid over time, it’s equally true that any person through industriousness, honour, and merit- and the odd deed of heroic nobility- can rise through the castes.
All seemed well for the five nations of Bant- Eos, Jhess, Valeron, Akrasa, and Topa- and might have continued on so for millennia to come, but for a truism of natural law that they could not have foreseen- what was undone must once again be whole. Over the slow passage of time, the shards of Alara have been drifting towards one another, their denizens completely unawares. And now, they are reuniting, mending. This, too, might have been a somewhat orderly- if traumatic- experience were it not for the schemes and machinations of a single planeswalker.
Scratch that. A single elder Dragon planeswalker.
Nicol Bolas knew that the shards in isolation would yield him far less than the energy sure to be ripe for the harvest when the five shards of Alara collided. The conflux of the five planes could be ripened all the more if the shards weren’t allowed a peaceful reunification, but rather plunged into conflict and all-out warfare. And so he used puppets and agents amongst the five shards to sculpt conditions there so that when the planes began to form a ring and merge at the edges, the agitated inhabitants would greet the event with hostility. For Bant, this meant fearful reports of swarms of artificial creatures crawling onto their plane on one side, and equally terrible monstrosities and behemoths appearing on the other. And so Bant met Esper and Naya, and despite the common threat woven between them of White mana, they were alien to one another. The soldiers and knights of Bant, rusted from ages of ceremonial combat, now had to face foes that had no regard for ritualised and ceremonial combat, but instead killed in earnest. It was time to sound the trumpets, time to mobilize…time for Bant on the March.
Trespass So Far From Home
The formula for Bant on the March should be a familiar one for those players accustomed to Shards of Alara’s Bant Exalted. The deck packs in a ton of creatures, many of them with evasion or other combat-relevant abilities like lifelink, and a number of them with exalted. Although bant will soon be forced to abandon its rigid style of combat, right now it’s all they know and you’ll still have to work with it. On the upside, although you have one less exalted card to work with (seven down from eight), the mechanic is still strong and can create threats virtually out of nowhere.
Bant on the March is designed to start hitting with exalted as early as turn 2, though you have to be a bit lucky on the draw (the deck’s sole Suntail Hawk is required). Bant Exalted looked for a more consistent early opener, given the pair of Akrasan Squires, while Bant on the March takes a slower and sturdier approach- thus the pair of Aven Squires as your early enabler. You also have recourse to a Frontline Sage, which not only gives you exalted as a three-drop but acts as a looter to help you find the cards you need out of your 41.
From there you have another exalted three-drop- albeit a much harder one to cast- in the deck’s premium foil rare Giltspire Avenger. This is a card much like Royal Assassin– namely, one that exerts some pressure on your opponent not to attack. It’s a vulnerability of exalted strateges that your defense is weaker than your offense (since the exalted triggers only occur when swinging into the red zone), so this is less of a drawback than it can sometimes be. One might reasonably wonder why an opponent keeping their beaters back on defense can be a drawback, until one has to try and navigate a mass of untapped creatures to get some damage in on the attack. Combat tends to work best when you’re taking some damage in exchange for a weakening of your opponent’s defenses, so long as you’re the one dealing more damage in the end.
Next we come to the Outrider of Jhess, a rather overpriced and humble 2/2 for four mana- the price you pay in Blue. Finally, a pair of Rhox Bodyguards are your toughest exalted option here, with 3 toughness and a bonus life bump. These are typically the creatures you’ll want to play as soon as they become available, given the fact that they can impact the board the very turn they touch down regardless of being summoning sick. One thing you might notice in comparing the first and second Bant/exalted precons is that while you get a slower start in implementing Bant’s signature mechanic on the second pass, the deck overall has a more beefy creature presence to help impose your will on the battlefield even if you don’t manage some exalted creatures right away.
For the non-exalted bodies in the deck, you have a wide variety of evasive and utility creatures. There is the singleton Suntail Hawk, as mentioned above, down from two copies in the first deck. You also have the expected representatives from the Outlander cycle in the Valeron Outlanders, 2/2’s which have protection from black. Each of the set’s decks have a pair of their respective Outlanders, which will be a bonus draw against a Black-inclusive deck but generally inferior otherwise. Rounding out your early plays is the Deft Duelist, whose first strike coupled with shroud make her a natural and tempting champion when you’ve managed to land a few exalted triggers.
Moving up the ladder, we find a few tricks in the three-drop slot. First is the Jhessian Balmgiver, a Samite Healer variant which has the nasty ability to make a creature unblockable each turn. Under her guidance, your exalted-soaking sole attacker will put an end to the game very quickly- her damage prevention is almost an afterthought. A Rhox War Monk is another standard from the first deck, and another good choice for a champion given his substantial size and lifelink. Finally, Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer and unwitting pawn of our draconic planeswalker friend, can hand out free Pacifisms every turn- though not without cost. You’ll want to use this repeatable removal very sparingly, as free cards for your opponent risks putting you behind.
The card advantage continues into the four- and five-drops with a Rhox Meditant and pair of Skyward Eye Prophets. The Meditant in this deck is essentially a cantripping 2/4 body as nearly half of your creatures are Green. Meanwhile, the Prophets- no slouches with vigilant 3/3 bodies- give you a free card every turn. The slight drawback of having to reveal the card is made up for the fact that land cards get put into play immediately, regardless of whether or not you’ve already played a land that turn. Finally, the Aerie Mystics offer you another flying, evasive body with some size to it- it’s also a 3/3. In addition, you have the ability to counter any removal your opponent might try and use on your beaters when the Mystics are in play with some open land- no small advantage.
As is the norm for the blocks decks, the noncreature support suite here is relatively modest. You have some removal present in a single Unsummon and a pair of Pacifisms. This being a base-White deck, you can also expect to see some combat trickery (two Gleams of Resistance) and a creature-augmenting aura (Asha’s Favor). The latter is fairly straightforward- your target gets flying, first strike, and vigilance, but the former bears special mention. One of Conflux’s mechanical innovations was the introduction of basic landcycling. It doesn’t seem very sexy, but the more we’ve played Conflux’s decks the more we’ve come to appreciate the subtle utility it offers. The Gleams make for a fine trick, but don’t hesitate to cycle them early if it means you can open up a line of plays by ensuring the appropriate colour mana is at your disposal. Towards that end, the deck’s land complement is cut from the same formula as most of the other decks- seven of your primary land (Plains), three each of your secondaries (Islands and Forests), along with a pair of Terramorphic Expanses and Seaside Citadels.
ANd thus the strategy of Bant on the March is made manifest. Tougher times call for a stronger response, so the deck is a bit beefier than its predecessor, at the natural expense of a little speed. With with its exalted creatures, removal, and card advantage, Bant on the March gives you the tools you need to prevail at single combat- or with a mob if need be. In our next piece, we’ll take the deck into the field of glory and see if it lives up to its promise.