Planar Chaos: Endless March Review (Part 1 of 2)
In our previous review of Unraveling Mind, we remarked upon the memorability of keyworded mechanics, and how having a keyword can make even a small set of cards stand out in the minds of players. Today we’ll be looking at a mechanic which is something of a corollary- one which saw a lot of play, was never keyworded, and now labours under relative obscurity.
The mechanic that would be known as gating was a fairly strightforward one when it was introduced in 2001’s Planeshift expansion. In exchange for returning a creature to your hand, you were able to reduce the casting cost of another creature. Of course, it was mandated that the creature you were bouncing had to share a colour with the creature you were gating in, but since all such creatures with that mechanic were multi-coloured in the first place, it typically was not all that difficult. As an ability, it was templated onto nearly a score of cards, and even saw a theme deck get built around it (Comeback).
Since then, members of Wizards R&D have come out on record saying that not keywording gating was something of a missed opportunity. When asked, head of Development Devin Low had this to say:
The primary benefit of these ‘ability words’ is to allow players to talk about all these cards as a group. It’s a lot easier to say: ‘Promised Kannushi is awesome with Channel creatures’ than to say ‘Promised Kannushi is awesome with those guys where you can pay mana and discard them to do something similar to what they do in play.’ People are going to come up with nicknames for these abilities anyway, so it helps players communicate if we can help them all use the same name…
My favorite example though, is Planeshift’s ‘Gating’ creatures. Like 16 other Planeshift cards, Cavern Harpy says ‘When Cavern Harpy comes into play, return a blue or black creature you control to its owner’s hand.’ I remember people saying ‘Battlemages and Flametongue Kavu get absurd with all those guys that return a guy to your hand when they come into play.’ Blech. What a mouthful. Writing ‘Gating’ would give players a word to describe the group as a whole. It would let you say ‘Gating on the stack.’ It would allow players to see the word ‘Gating’ and skip over that sentence of rules text, already knowing what it said.
And it also would have clued people in to the fact that Cavern Harpy and Horned Kavu’s abilities were related to each other in some kind of structure. Think it’s crazy that people might not notice the similarity? Just think: It never occurred to me that the cycle of Planeshift Dragon Lairs had ‘Gating’ just like Cavern Harpy. Until I got to Wizards. And I’m me.
When Time Spiral rolled around in 2007, it was too late to retrofit gating’s formal name… but that doesn’t mean that Wizards couldn’t do a little tinkering of their own.
The most obvious place to begin was addressing the feeling that gating was a drawback. Over time, Wizards has avowedly moved away from restrictive or heavy-downside mechanics, preferring to emphasize the positive aspects of an ability or keyword. To be fair, gating in its old state wasn’t entirely negative. It allowed you to get a creature in for less than you’d ordinarily pay, and even would allow you to ‘free’ creatures locked down by an enchantment effect such as Pacifism. But for all that, you were still having to trade in a creature you’d already cast, and that carried a certain ‘feel-bad’ baggage.
For gating’s return, two major changes were put into place that made it feel almost entirely upside. First, the colour restriction was lifted, meaning that gating creatures would now simply return a creature to hand once cast, regardless of whether or not it matched the colour of the gating one. Secondly, they paired gating with another mechanic with which it had a very natural synergy- flash. With a player now able to play a gating card in response, say, to targeted removal, the player could save their own doomed creature from its untimely demise and cheat out a creature to replace it. Voila, happiness abounded, and Wizards had their renovated gating ready to go.
Indeed, it’s that concept which gives Endless March its mechanical core. In a nutshell, the deck is designed around using gating creatures to maximum advantage. There’s the prospect of ‘rescue’ as mentioned above, but it also includes limited-use creatures with vanishning which might otherwise only stick around a short while. Instead, once the time counters are nearly run out, simply gate that creature back to your hand and recast it, good as new. Like all of the Planar Chaos decks, Endless March is skewed heavily in favour of creatures over pure spells, but as we’ve seen throughout the set there is a great deal of overlay between the two.
To Speak of Justice
Both the gating creatures as well as those that can help abuse the mechanic are distributed together across the casting costs, so we’ll want to keep an eye out for both types of creatures as we parse the Endless March’s deck list.
At the front of the queue we find a pair of Icatian Javelineers and a Children of Korlis. The Javelineers- a timeshifted reprint from Fallen Empires- have the ability to ‘throw their javelin’ once for a single point of damage, making them acceptable targets for returning to hand. The Children, on the other hand, are one-use only. Their ability to heal you for the damage you’ve sustained in a single turn can be potent, but requires their sacrifice. As such, they’re a bit of a misfit in the deck, which should prefer aggression over conditional lifegain, and utility over limited-use.
Moving to the two-drops, we find a raft of different things happening here. You have a pair of Errant Doomsayers, which are limited tappers. The restriction placed upon their target (that it must have power 2 or less) means that often you won’t be able to use them to tap down the very threat you’d most need to. Instead, they’ll be limited to disruptive shenanigans with enemy utility creatures- essentially, a fringle player. Like many cards from the set, the Errant Doomsayers are a suble riff on an earlier card, essentially an Aysen Bureaucrat given a nice new coat of Rebel paint. You also have here a Soltari Priest, another timeshifted reprint. It’s evasive 2 power and protection from Red make this a solid aggressive choice, and one that many opponents may find hard to remove.
Red provides some volunteers here as well. The Keldon Marauders have enters-and-leaves-play triggers, making them ideal rescue targets when their services are needed. Whether rescued or not they’ll ping your opponent on the way out, but by summoning and unsummoning them you can get a tidy bit of damage in. Their 3/3 body doesn’t hurt, either. The Mogg War Marshal has echo, so if you need another Goblin token in a pinch you can simply let him die by refusing to pay it, though largely you’d be better off retaining his services. It’s important to note that the Marshal’s exit trigger does specify the graveyard, so rescuing him won’t provide you with any bonus until you cast him back onto the battlefield.
In the realm of the colourless we find a pair of Jhoira’s Timebugs. 1/2 Insects with a peculiar supporting ability, these are here primarily to extend the life of your vanishing creatures as you only have one suspend card in the deck. The ability is cute, but probably wasted here- the whole point of vanishing creatures is to enable aggressive, trade-later-for-now play. Expending not one but two whole cards in the deck to this sort of supporting role does take some of the sharp off the blade.
Finally, we find our first gating creatre in the two-drops, a trio of Whitemane Lions. Two-mana 2/2’s, their flash makes the card work for all the reasons illustrated in the intorduction of the piece. Not only can they ‘rescue’ a creature from removal, but they also can pull back a vanishing creature right before it dies to losing its time counters.
The three-drop range is similarly packed with trickiness. The Aven Riftwatcher is comparable to the Keldon Marauders, but rather than pinging an opponent for 1 they heal you for 2. They’re a touch more expensive and they shave off a point of power, but they have flying to somewhat balance the ledger. The Lavacore Elemental is a vanishing creature with a twist. A three-mana 5/3 is a fantastic deal, but you’re liable to losing it the turn after it comes into play. In order to be able to get in an attack with it, you already have to be in an attacking position, for you add time counters to it every time one of your creatures deals combat damage to a player. This makes the Elemental highly conditional, and is another good reason to appreciate the deck’s evasive bodies.
The Stonecloaker is another gating creature, but unlike the Lion this one brings along some abilities of its own. A 3/2 flying body is already solid, but it also has the occasionally-desirable effect of removing a card in a graveyard from the game. This is situationally relevant- most decks won’t be fazed by that- but if you’re up against the reanimating Rituals of Rebirth it can be crippling. Remember too that there’s nothing preventing you from having the Stonecloaker return itself to your hand, so you can cast it over and over again, stripping card after card out of a graveyard.
Finally we find the deck’s sole suspend representative, the Riftmarked Knight. Another of the time-related mechanics of Time Spiral, suspend lets you place a creature in suspended animation, letting it wake up a certain number of turns later. Often this was used as a way to get a more expensive card into play for a cheaper cost, trading time as a resource, but in the Knight’s case its hardcast and suspend costs are the same. The difference then, is what you get from suspending it- a 2/2 token creature that’s a negative image of the Knight. The question that you’ll need to ask yourself is whether or not it’s worth waiting until turn 6 to get an extra 2/2 with a few added abilities- it may not always be a fair trade.
The deck’s biggest beatings lie in wait at the four-drop slot. You have a pair of timeshifted Blastoderms in the Calciderm, a 5/5 body with shroud. The shroud is a bit unfortunate, since that means the Timebug can’t prolong its stint on the battlefield, but in general it’s a net positive. The Dust Elemental is even bigger, though it gates not one but three creatures back to hand when played. That can be either a help or a handicap depending on the game state, but a 6/6 flyer is a must-deal-with card that can win games by itself. Rounding out the slot is the Avalanche Riders, the Darwin Kastle card. It’s not cheap to do it, but if you can find a way to return the Riders to hand a few times you stand the very real prospect of being able to nuke your opponent’s manabase. Outwith that application, it’s an eight-mana 2/2 with haste– not the best use of that much resource.
Endless March has its focus on the lower end of the mana scale, so by way of top-of-curve beaters you have merely a pair of Stormfront Riders, 4/3 flying gaters with an added ability- whenever a creature is returned to your hand from play (in other words, every time you manage to gate), you get a free 1/1 Soldier. This is a fairly middling ability as the Soliders don’t have any dedicated application outside of just being 1/1 creatures, unlike Rituals of Rebirth where the token generation was a way to flashback your Dread Returns, but another body is never a bad thing to have. 4 power in the air is even better.
The Rage That Drives Them
As with the other decks in Planar Chaos, there’s a lot of complexity with regards to your board state and your creature complement. Between the coes-into-play abilities, exits-play abilities, echo, vanishing, and of course all the gating, there’s a lot to keep track of. As a result, you have very little in the way of a pure spell complement.
Most importantly, you have a touch of burn and some combat tickery. Brute Force is what we might have seen had Giant Growth been printed in Red, and it functions no differently. Sunlance is 3 damage at sorcery speed, which drastically limits its effectiveness (though it’s still far better than having no burn at all). Dead//Gone gives you the choice of either a Shock or an Unsummon, though the latter only works against holstile targets. And finally, your deck’s second rare appears here in the form of a Fatal Frenzy, which is a reworking of Berserk. Despite the new version costing three times as much, it’s still well worth the effect.
From there you have a Dawn Charm, which like all Charms gives you a choice of three lesser effects. None of the three are all that great here, but it should find some use at some point if only to save one of your creatures from removal. You also have recouse to a pair of Timecraftings. Like the Timebug, these are ‘meta’ cards which interact with time counters. The problem with these cards is the same as with the Timebug- the card you’d most want to use it on you can’t (Calciderm), leaving what? Lavacore Elemental? Not a bad choice, but surely not worth a card. This “meddle with time” subtheme is a definite miss in an otherwise rather aggressive gimmick deck.
Overall, it will be interesting to see if the disparate themes of Endless March manage to come together in support of the deck’s ambitions for victory. As always, there’s only one way to find out, and we’ll be back in two days’ time with a report on how it faced against some stiff competition.