Tempest: The Slivers Review (Part 1 of 2)
If you’re like most any Magic player, you’ve probably thought a time or two of a cool card idea that hasn’t been printed yet. If you’re like many, you might even have fleshed the idea out in your mind a little- maybe determined what colour the card is, or how much it might cost. Perhaps you’re like a few who have gone a step further and dreamed up mechanics to play around with, or a handful of custom cards. And if you’re like a very few, you might even have designed your own expansion.
Expansions in Magic are more or less like fan fiction. Many of them are poorly executed, others plumb the depths of mediocrity, and occasionally you find one that is done quite well. Like such fiction, they’re filled with whimsy and big ideas, but sometimes can get a little carried away with themselves. Sometimes, though, all they need is a little polish to sparkle.
Witness the set “Astral Ways,” designed by a fella named Mike. Mike envisioned an entire world split into two. This was not so much a physical division of topography and terrain, but rather a separation of the world into the terrestrial half on one side, and a “parallel astral world” on the other. Connecting these two halves was a single gateway, keeping the worlds apart from one another. In Mike’s narrative, a villain schemes to throw open the doorway, but to uncertain purpose. A hero arises to stop him and fails- the gateway is opened- but the hero redeems himself by sacrificing himself to close it once more. This hero, known as the Controller, finds his being shattered into fragments as a result, though he is far from dead. Instead, inspired by the card Plague Rats, his body parts have a life of their own and what’s more, they resonate with each other and can sense the presence of their kin. These body parts became creature cards in Mike’s set, present in all five colours.
If the idea of a horde of liberated organs and chunks of flesh schlorping their way across the table to attack you seems a bit silly, there are some perfectly serviceable ideas in there. Indeed, that’s the conclusion Wizards R&D had in the early 90’s when Astral Ways was presented to them. At the time they were in the midst of designing Tempest, and the concept of creatures which grew more powerful through different abilities as you had more of them in play seemed like it would fit right into the set. Mike- who had been hired by Wizards the year previous- presented his idea for his body parts (or, as he called them, “slivers”) and as we know they eventually became the foundation for one of the most popular tribes in the history of the game. And Mike? Mike Elliot would becomes one of its most prolific card designers, eventually becoming Director of Design. Indeed, the Tempest team wasn’t done with Astral Ways, as they also borrowed a concept for “astral” creatures which couldn’t be blocked or block normal creatures- the precursor for shadow. (For more on the story of Tempest and Mike Elliot, click here.)
The Slivers would go on to have a long and storied run throughout the history of the game, popping up in several different sets throughout the years. Although we’ve covered their history in detail before during our review of the Premiumd Deck Series bearing their name, it’s worth noting that Tempest block was the origin of several interesting tribes. Although the Slivers’ poor cousin, the Spikes, never quite found the level of popularity and fame that the Slivers did, the Kor tribe would eventually get some love in Zendikar. Today we look at this very first Slivers deck, named- appropriately enough- The Slivers.
A Jigsaw Puzzle That Lives
When Elliot designed his body-part slivers, he took pains to ensure that they were sprinkled throughout all five colours out of worry about their power level. You can see the same concern evident here with regards to the number of creatures the deck contains. With only sixteen Slivers (and no other creatures) in the deck, you have the odd result of The Slivers being a spellheavy deck first, “Slivers deck” second. While you’d see this number go up in successive Sliver-based decks as Wizards gained a better grasp of their power level (20 in Legions’ Sliver Shivers, then a big leap to 29 in Time Spiral’s Sliver Evolution and 30 in Premium Deck Series: Slivers), you don’t have a lot to work with here.
Indeed, a full 25% of your Slivers (4 out of 16) do absolutely nothing at all. The Metallic Sliver is a simple 1/1 for that has the sole benefit of being a Sliver. It brings no abilities to the table, but it gladly absorbs any that might be on offer from any real Sliver it sees.
In the two-drop slot, you have two flavours to pick from. The Winged Sliver grants flying, while the Clot variety lets your Slivers live to fight another day. In comparison to future Sliver abilities these are fairly pedestrian, but they get the job done (particularly the evasion-granting Winged Sliver).
A trio of Mnemonic Slivers occupy the three-drop slot, letting you draw a card at the expense of a Sliver- the perfect response to any removal your opponent might be playing. The Mindwhip Sliver, on the other hand, has the opposite effect: rather than putting you up a card, it puts your opponent down one. What really gives that card teeth is the instance of a single word: random. These days non-peek discard is almost uniformly your opponent’s worst card, but the Mindwhip carries the real possibility of a heartbreaking loss for your opponent.
Thinking Mage’s Version of Brute Force
To support and protect your budding Sliver army, The Slivers gives you one of the largest countermagic suites of any preconstructed deck ever made- a full seven cards, in a number of shapes and sizes. You might not be getting a lot of Slivers here, but the ones you do get will be well-guarded! First off you get a pair of Counterspells, the classic two-mana hard counter. Throw a cantrip on there for another and you end up with Dismiss, a later-game counter which replaces itself in your hand.
Beyond those, the remaining Interrupts (a now-extinct card type indicating faster-than-Instant spells) are all X-spells. Spell Blast counters any spell with a converted mana cost of X, while Power Sink instead demands that your opponent pay more for their spell to prevent it from being countered- and if they can’t, you tap out their lands. Letting their spell get countered and going on to cast others is, happily, not an option for them. Finally, you have Ertai’s Meddling– one of your deck’s three rares (Theme Decks would only drop down to the now-standard two for Urza’s Saga a year later). In modern terminology, Ertai’s Meddling essentially puts an involuntary suspend on one of your opponent’s spells. It will resolve eventually (if the game isn’t won by then), but it will do so X turns later.
The deck’s other strength comes in the form of removal. You have access to both targeted (Dark Banishing) and non-targeted (Diabolic Edict) instant-speed removal, as you might expect. There’s also Extinction, your next rare and a rather clumsy and cumbersome addition to the deck. A five-mana sorcery that destroys all creatures in play of a single type, it’s almost like having a kryptonite card in your Superman deck. This card is at its best against you- working in your favour, how effective could it be? All of Tempest’s theme decks are fairly diverse, and this is a card that demands that your opponent be playing something like a tribal theme deck for maximum effect. This card is a waste of a slot and the mana, as most of the time it will be slow, expensive, one-for-one removal.
Your last two removal cards, however, are reusable and repeatable. Evincar’s Justice is a 2-point Pestilence that can sweep the board of weenies, and its buyback lets you pull it back to hand rather then putting it in the graveyard once it resolves. The chances of being able to use it twice in a turn are slim given its steep cost- you’d need enough open mana as it takes to hardcast Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre to do that- but it can help thin out a cluttered board.
Given how easily it can backfire, since no creature in the deck has a toughness greater than 2 and none of the toughness-boosting Slivers (see: Armor, Muscle) are present in the deck, Evincar’s Justice is a relatively poor inclusion. The only saving grace it has is that your deck is creature-light, so you might find times that it will do more damage to your opponent than it will to you. Proceed with caution.
The other repeatable removal is the deck’s second rare. Fevered Convulsions is an enchantment that’s relatively cheap to play, and has a manageable activation cost. For four mana, you can put a -1/-1 counter on a creature. It’s slow and somewhat cumbersome, but gets added points for the ability to use it at instant speed. It’s also a great mana sink for later in the game- with all that countermagic you’re bound to have some mana open for most turns, and this makes a great end-of-your-opponent’s-turn efficiency boost.
Beyond removal and countermagic you also have a small dollop of card drawing. A pair of Dream Caches is a more-expensive Brainstorm but with the upside of letting you flush the put-back cards to the bottom of your library instead of the top. That was you can ‘pass the trash’ and help improive your next couple draws. Whispers of the Muse is the classic buyback card, letting you turn excess mana into an extra card every turn. Essence Bottle is another mana-dump, this time for lifegain (yawn). Finally, there’s Lobotomy. Like Extinction, this is a card that makes you scratch your head a little and wonder why its here. To be fair, this is the most consistent preconstructed environment ever, so if ever there was a precon set to run Lobotomy it’s Tempest block. Still, the chances of this being more than just a slightly-more-expensive Coercion are fairly limited. On the upside, it’s a fun card to play on those times when you really hit paydirt, like catching the Flames of Rath player tapped out with a Kindle in hand.
It’s worth mention that the manabase here is a fairly straightforward affair of Islands and Swamps, though you do get a Rootwater Depths as well. Overall, while the low creature count is a concern, having a consistent array of counters and kill spells just looks like too much fun to pass up. Will there be enough bodies available to ensure victory? We’ll find out in some playtesting, and report back in two days.