Invasion: Spectrum Review (Part 1 of 2)
As we enter the year 2012, there’s a sort of theme developing here at Ertai’s Lament: firsts. Tempest, for instance, was the first set to have Theme Decks released alongside it, which have been continued for every set since (changing over to Intro Packs beginning with Shards of Alara). According to Wizards’ then-Vice President of R&D, Bill Rose, Invasion was designed to be the first block with a thematic focus on multi-colour play, something we take for granted now with Commander play giving life to hordes of multi-colour “commanders” and an entire set (Alara Reborn) done up in spiffy gold borders. Indeed, it’s a theme that will be evident in the next few sets we review (outwith Dark Ascension which will appear right on schedule, but you never know- it may have a significant ‘first’ too!).
Today’s deck, Spectrum, further can hold the distinction of being the first-ever preconstructed five-colour deck. There haven’t been many (you can see their history here, in our review of Planeshift’s Domain deck), but we have seen the method and means fairly recently with the release of Duel Decks: Phyrexia vs the Coalition in 2010. In fact, that product was a direct extension of Invasion’s five-colour offerings, and there’s considerable overlap between them.
Despite the apparent complexity underlying a deck using all-five colours, the underlying principle is fairly straightforward. Using Green as a base, since it has the most mana-fixing and -ramping options available of any colour (not close), these decks look to stuff a significant portion of the deck with ways to fix their manabase and get one each of all five basic land types into play. In that sense, it’s almost like a mini-game. Meanwhile, you tend to cede the early turns to your enemy, as you’ll often have a fair amount of cards in hand that are uncastable- either you don’t have the mana, or they’re not powered up enough yet to justify their cost.
But if you’re successful at the mini-game and can get a nice spread set out before you, a funny thing happens- your deck goes into overdrive. That lead you gave your opponent while you fiddled with land drops gets overtaken as you play a series of highly efficient spells that get stronger with each basic land type you have in play. Maybe you’re dealing 5 damage for only . Perhaps you just put the red zone on a state of high alert with a six-mana 6/9 beatstick. But your opponent often can only watch as you recover that lost ground and close the game out.
Each of Invasion block’s sets has a deck that follows this archetype. We’ve already mentioned Domain above, from the second set of the block, and Apocalypse carries its version as well (Pandemonium) which features the domain-in-a-box card, Gaea’s Balance. With each step, the archetype was refined and built upon as more cards and substrategies became available. In that sense, with Spectrum being the first, you’ll find it has a certain rough-hewn feel to it. Put another way, of the three five-colour decks in the series, it’s the one that most plays like a “normal” deck that splashes the domain mechanic, rather than one wholly and fully built around it. That said, it has a few surprises all its own.
Stature and Stride
While it’s fair to say that Spectrum hedges its bet somewhat rather than going all-in on domain, it does have a fairly intriguing idea of how to synergise with that subtheme. If you’re going to go ahead and build up all this mana to try and hit domain anyway, its logic argues, why not take advantage of the ramping and play a bunch of fatties? As the mana curve above illustrates, it’s here where the deck isn’t timid about embracing a concept, but rather takes it and runs with it. Were it not for the abundant mana production the deck is capable of landing, having such a back-heavy curve would surely carry with it a red flag over a yellow.
Spectrum devotes a total of nine nonland cards towards mana production, and these form the vital backbone of the deck. A trio of Harrows– a reprint from Tempest- lead things off. Trading one land (plus a card) for two land is a fine deal when it can help get you closer to your five-colour goal by as much as 40%. You also have a trio of Fertile Grounds. These are less useful in some ways, as they don’t contribute towards your goal of domain, but they are solid ramp cards in an environment where putting an aura on a land is a very safe action to take (Benalish Emissaries notwithstanding). With them adding any colour of mana to your mana pool irrespective of what type of land you’ve enchanted, you should be able to quickly bring your best cards to bear.
You also have a couple of creatures pitching in here to help out. The Quirion Trailblazer is a straightforward, one-time deal of a 1/2 creature and a land (tapped but in play) for four mana. While a 1/2 body raises no eyebrows in the later game, every land you can bring online is another 2-3 effective turns of acceleration when looking at your expensive suite of big guns. You get two of her, as well as a miser’s copy of a Nomadic Elf. The Elf doesn’t produce any mana of his own. Rather, he’s a sort of filter-on-a-stick, letting you convert mana between colours at a rather steep two-for-one rate of exchange. With any luck, you’ll outgrow need of his services fairly quickly, but the 2/2 body he brings will still have some utility.
With all that work being done to prime your creature factory, as early as the mid-game you’ll be ready to begin taking full advantage. Sure you have some early plays to put a brake on your opponent- the Yavimaya Barbarian’s protection from Blue isn’t as sexy as some in the cycle, but can still happily stop a charging Vodalian Serpent. You also get a trio of one-drop utility creatures in the Thornscape Apprentice, who is welcome at any stage of the game. Early on he can use his tapper ability to stall your opponent’s offense. Later, that same ability can then clear some obstacles that shant between your creatures and your opponent’s life total, or issue a creature with first strike at instant speed to give your opponent something to think about when declaring blockers.
From there, though, the beat parade kicks off in its full glory. The Voracious Cobra is the smallest of the lot, but the combination of quasi-deathtouch and first strike spells death for even the largest creature assigned to block it. Its 2 power is just the right size for your opponent to be tempted to let it pass uncontested instead, which in itself isn’t such a bad outcome either. Meanwhile, the Kavu Climber is fairly straightforward- a “French-vanilla” 3/3 creature that replaces itself in your hand. Its cousin, the Serpentine Kavu, has the same converted mana cost, but is a 4/4 that doesn’t replace itself in your hand. On the upside, it has an optional haste ability for one more mana to help catch your opponent off-guard.
At the very top of Spectrum’s mana curve we find a few more creatures even larger still. The Wayfaring Giant has unimpressive base stats- a mere 1/3- but will almost never revert back to them- it gets +1/+1 for each basic land type you control, capping out as a much more intimidating 6/9. The Sabertooth Nishoba– one of the deck’s two rare cards- has a static power and toughness of a respectable 5/5, but also has trample and a pair of protections against Red and Blue (indeed, check out the aquatic serpent it’s manhandling in the art). With immunity to bounce and burn, the Nishoba will present some challenge to deal with to your opponent if they’re playing with either of those colours. In Invasion, that means only the Green/White Heavy Duty gets a free pass.
The final top-of-curve beatings come from the Djinns, a returning creature type in Invasion. As part of a cycle, they all share the same mechanical identity: large creatures that only are at their best when their particular colour is underrepresented on the board. In addition, each carries a signature keyworded ability tied to its particular colour. In Spectrum you get three of them- two of the flying (Zanam) variety and one of the hasted kind (Halam). With the largest base stats of any creature in the deck, they are must-deal-with-or-die dilemmas for your opponent- especially the evasive Zanam.
The Universal Language
Thus we see two of the deck’s main divisions- enabler creatures and spells that help you power up your manabase, and then a suite of creatures well-designed to take advantage of your quick development. The remainder of the deck comprises your noncreature options. Many of these are in place to support your combat role, but there are a few cards which stand on their own.
Chief amongst these is the deck’s second rare, Global Ruin. This is a card that can absolutely punish your opponent, especially if they are playing a mono-coloured deck. With Invasion’s other three Theme Decks comprised of two colours, its almost certain to turn the game on its axis once played making this card the perfect inclusion in this deck. Gamers of a certain age might remember with fond nostalgia (or barely-suppressed horror) how White used to get a rare “nuke” card like Red got burn and Blue got counters: Armageddon, Winds of Rath, Cataclysm, Catastrophe, Balancing Act– and that’s not even getting into the Wrath of God effects. Although the Wraths and sweepers remain, the land-smashing chain of nukes seem to be a thing of the past. Whether that’s for the better or worse we leave to your own judgment.
Two other spells here take advantage of your focus on domain. Tribal Flames is a red burn spell which outputs damage equal to the number of basic land types you have in play. Although it’s slow- sorcery speed- its cheap cost makes it an appealing card for later in the game. There’s also an Ordered Migration, which can give you five power in the air for five mana under the right conditions.
Moving on from there, you have a useful Blue package with a pair each of Probe and Exclude. Probe is a looting spell, which if its kicker is paid can take a nasty and disruptive twist. Exclude is an Essence Scatter that replaces itself in your hand- a real bargain for that extra . There’s also a Fires of Yavimaya, an enchantment that gives all of your creatures haste and can be popped for a one-time power and toughness boost.
The final set of cards are from another of Invasion’s innovations, the split card. Essentially two different cards in one, they give you the flexibility of choice in determining which effect is most needed at any given time. Playing a five-colour deck gives you some range with regards to inclusion of these, since each half of the split is often of a different colour. Taken on their own, each side typically is slightly less efficient than a regular (“full-size”) card would be, but that’s the price to be paid for the flexibility.
Wax // Wane offers a choice between a reduced-strength Giant Growth and a narrower Disenchant, both at instant speed. Spectrum offers you two of these, as well as a pair of Assault // Batteries. Assault is a Shock, but at sorcery speed rather than instant, while Battery is a simple 3/3 token creature for four mana- fine, perhaps, for other colours but a mana too expensive for Green on its own. Finally, you get a singleton Spite // Malice. Spite is a Negate that costs twice as much, but in general should prove to be the less compelling half. Malice is a Dark Banishing that costs one mana more.
In keeping with the basic-land-matters theme, Spectrum has no nonbasic lands. But overall, that should be of little hindrance in light of the mana ramping/fixing package on offer. We’ll next be taking the deck into the field to see how it performs in its natural environment of Invasion’s theme decks. Check back in two days for the full report!