Dark Ascension: Relentless Dead Review (Part 1 of 2)
When Wizards introduced the lore of Innistrad, any Vorthos worth their salt who had been playing the game for the past three years could be forgiven for rolling their eyes. A disappearing angel, they might well have said, well, here we go again.
It was only a few sets ago that we were introduced to the shard of Bant, whose angelic custodian Asha had- similar to Avacyn- mysteriously disappeared. Surely Wizards’ creative team wasn’t so desperate for ideas that they decided to fish a few underdeveloped ones out of the recycling bin? Surely?
Now into our second set of the block, it’s quite plain that such worries are without foundation, as we’ve seen Wizards release one of the most flavour-driven sets in the history of the game. A rich backstory and setting packed with abundant top-down-designed cards, interwoven into a tribal-themed set may not be what every Magic player was hoping for, but it certainly has delivered for a large segment of the playing population as the game continues its climb in popularity. It is also a resonant reminder of how history can repeat itself.
2003’s Mirrodin is infamous for its broken Standard environment (for more on this bleak time in the game’s history, see our review of Sacrificial Bam). With high-power cards culminating in a cripplingly dominant deck archetype known as Ravager Affinity, it is widely held that Magic saw more players quit the game then than at any other period before or since. In the wake of Mirrodin, however, came a counterweight to the dominating power of that block: 2004’s Champions of Kamigawa. Perhaps most memorable now thanks to its generous contribution to the Commander format (every rare creature was legendary), Kamigawa also represented a general toning down of the power level of cards, something which is periodically necessary to avoid endless inflation of card power to the detriment of the health of the game. While it would take some years for the player population to be restored to the numbers the game saw before the apocalypse of Ravager Affinity, Champions was able to help restore some measure of balance.
Looking at today’s Standard environment, while it’s safe to say that we haven’t seen the sort of destruction wrought upon the competitive game with Scars of Mirrodin that its predecessor had delivered,we can’t say that Scars block gets a free pass. After all, there was that business of a pair of Zendikar-block cards that earned the game’s first bannings since Mirrodin once their full potential became realised with Scars. This time, it was time for the Spikes to roll their eyes and say, here we go again. This time, though, Wizards was in position to act much more aggressively, and the game at the competitive level didn’t see the mass quits that it had before.
And now, as with Champions of Kamigawa, we see the successor set let a little of the pressure out of the tank with a more toned-down power level. Although loaded with flavour, Innistrad block hasn’t given us a ton of cheap and aggressive removal- indeed, removal is fairly threadbare this time around. There are no Arc Trails, no Go for the Throats, no Dismembers. We get mythics for all manner of player, but nothing perhaps quite so defining as the Swords. And while this comes as a disappointment to many in the competitive set, those of us of a more casual stripe have been quite richly rewarded. Case in point- the resurrection of one of the game’s most popular tribes: the Zombies.
To find the last time we were treated to an all-singing, all-dancing horde-o’-undead, you have to look back to Zombies Unleashed from Legions- coincidentally a set that was also released in the same calendar year as Mirrodin. Although the tribe has fallen upon hard times as of late, watching from the sidelines as the Vampire muscled in to its tribal territory, the good news for Zombie fans is not only that they are back, but they have a whole new colour to play with as well. Thanks to Innistrad, we now have two different and distinct species of Zombie- the traditional, undead version in Black, as well as the ‘reanimated corpse/Frankenstein’s Monster’ version in Blue. Today’s deck looks to take full advantage of both.
So Many Corpses…
Don’t let the presence of Blue fool you- Relentless Dead is about as straightforward a beats deck as you’ll find outside of Green. Made up of the fairly standard ratio of 24 creatures/12 noncreatures, it boasts an unusually aggressive curve more in keeping with the concept of an aggressive Zombie. At long last, the humble Scathe Zombies have been rendered obsolete by a strictly-better update, and the oft-seen Zombie of old- carrying a useful ability but often a bit pricey on the mana- has been updated to a much more aggressive Skaab mechanic of getting more for less so long as you can exile a creature card from your graveyard. Relentless Dead, then, will look to do two things- find ways to make sure there are creatures in its graveyard, and put a lot of bodies into play.
We begin with The Diregraf Ghoul and Walking Corpse. Both upgrades on the Scathe model, they are essentially identical 2/2 bodies for less. The uncommon Ghoul is the cheapest option here, costing only with the caveat that it comes into play tapped. Still, it’s a small price to pay for being able to attack in with it on turn 2. The common version is a plain vanilla 2/2 for two mana, and the deck gives you two of each of these.
But the two-drop slot isn’t done with us yet, and it has a few more intricate offerings to slake our necromantic thirst. The Black Cat is a slip of a thing- a mere 1/1- but it packs with it a death trigger that forces your opponent to discard a card at random from their hand. Over time, random discard as exemplified by such all-stars as the Hypnotic Specter and Hymn to Tourach has been on the wane, supplanted over time with either discard of your opponent’s choice (a la Mind Rot) or narrow-focus reveal-and-select (such as Duress or Inquisition of Kozilek). Indeed, the last time we saw random discard was with Alara Reborn’s Sanity Gnawers, so enjoy it while you can.
Finally, we get a trio of Screeching Skaabs, the first in our series of graveyard-interactive Zombies. The Screeching Skaab is a self-milling card, not unlike the Armored Skaab from Innistrad. What’s intriguing here is that the self-mill array that Innistrad gave us was largely defensive in measure. Those initial cards seemed to be guiding us to build a defensive perimiter with the Armored Skaabs to buy some time, then use Deranged Assistants to ramp/mill us until useful things started to appear in the graveyard. Not so with this latest model. A 2/1 body tells a much different tale than a 1/4 one does, and gives some clue as to what this deck wants you to do: get them out, pack your graveyard, then turn them sideways.
Although less in number, the three-drops are where we start to see the synergistic power of the deck’s engine unfold. The Stitched Drake is the first creature we’ve seen that requires you to have a creature in the graveyard to cast it, and what the new Headless Skaab loses in evasion it certainly gets back in ruggedness. These are superb turn-three plays, and in the removal-light environment that is Innistrad block, you will often get a fair amount of mileage out of them before they’re solved. You also are given a singleton Ghoulraiser, which has a slight bit of negative synergy with the deck (generally, you want corpses in your yard), but more than makes up for it with the card advantage he offers.
But it’s the Diregraf Captain that makes the biggest splash in the deck. This three-mana gold-bordered lord in uncommon will have a brutal impact the moment he hits the board. As a 2/2 with deathtouch that gives all of your other Zombies +1/+1, he’s already well worth his three-mana pricetag, but on top of that he gives you some reach by needling your opponent for 1 life whenever one of your Zombies dies. This card is ridiculously strong here, and if you’re looking to improve the deck your first move surely must be to acquire two more to round out the full playset. There is no other card in the deck that has the potential to really pivot a game as the Captain does.
Moving up to the four-drops, we find our premium rare card in the deck’s only non-Zombie creature, the Havengul Runebinder. Another fellow whose black heart is warmed at the sight of a well-stocked larder, the Runebinder trades your dead creatures for new 2/2 ones, which immediately grow to 3/3’s once he’s done sprinkling his +1/+1 counters about. You also get a Makeshift Mauler here, a 4/5 body that uses the “Skaab mechanic” to get into play quicker, as well as a Rotting Fensnake. Don’t let the Fensnake’s power beguile you with fantasies of brutal attacks- without trample, you’re as often as not more likely to lose him to some feeble chump block than to swing for the win with it, but it has its uses. As we’ll see, there’s a noncreature card coming up which is delighted to share a deck with the Fensnake.
Finally, there are a pair of Abattoir Ghouls. 3/2 bodies with a lifegain trigger, their most important attribute is likely their first strike. First strike is a secondary ability in Black, as witnessed by the fact that in the entirety of Scars block you only ever had two creatures in the colour that possessed it (Glissa the Traitor, Phyrexian Crusader). In an environment filled with smaller bodies, the Ghoul has an opportunity to really shine on both offense as well as defense.
The deck then ends on a high note with a few closing options. The Zombie Goliath is a 4/3 vanilla, and that’s about as exciting as it gets. Still, it’s a sizable body that doesn’t care about what’s in your graveyard, and surely that has to count for something. Smaller still is the Farbog Boneflinger, a five-mana 2/2. That’s a dreadful deal, though somewhat offset buy the fact that it offers the potential for card advantage by being removal-on-a-stick. You have very few ways to directly respond to threats in Relentless Dead, so while you might not be thrilled to pay five mana for a 2/2, you’ll be glad for the removal. The last creature card in the deck is the king of closers, the monstrous Skaab Goliath. Although he comes at a hefty cost- six mana and the removal of two creatures from your graveyard, if you manage to drop this 6/9 trampling beater onto the battlefield your opponent will need to find a quick answer, or fall beneath it.
…So Little Time
The noncreature complement here is a very diverse bag of options. As mentioned above, your removal suite is both poor and paltry- a pair of Dead Weights and a Corpse Lunge. Dead Weights are superb because of their cost, but their scope is quite limited. To pick off something larger than a 2/2 (without having to rely upon it being weakneed in creature combat), the singleton Corpse Lunge is at your disposal. Delighted to see high-power creatures in the graveyard (such as the Rotting Fensnake), this is one of the cards that rewards you for playing aggressively by turning the inevitable battlefield attrition into a resource.
The deck’s Islands gift you with some card draw in the form of a pair of Forbidden Alchemies, and you also have a singleton counter in a Negate. Countermagic is critical in the right deck, but it’s as out of place here as a Slayer of the Wicked. Very often, you’ll wish it was something else as it sits in your hand, waiting for a useful opportunity when you could use another creature or kill spell. Still, Wizards have something of a habit of including a token counterspell in Blue decks, and Relentless Dead is surely no exception.
There the deck is exceptional is in token generation, as it has a full 10% of the deck devoted to giving you even more Zombies to add to your existing warband. Cellar Door is a curious yet flavourful artifact that is a snug fit here. Not only does it offer you the possibility of netting a few more 2/2 tokens, but it also helps fill your graveyard with those vital creatures needed to help bring your army into being. Zombie Infestation fills a similar role, though at a much steeper price. If the cost of two cards from your hand seems stupidly expensive for a 2/2 creature, you’re right- but it should be noted that it was originally printed in Odyssey, where the threshold mechanic gave you a great deal of incentive to move cards from your hand to the graveyard as quickly as was feasible. Magic 2011- and Innistrad- give you less good reason, but it can be useful when facing an empty graveyard and a Skaab Goliath sitting lamely in hand.
Endless Ranks of the Dead– the deck’s second rare- is also a bit pricey for a card that costs four mana and effectively does nothing on the turn it’s deployed. That said, there are more than enough Zombies here to make it worth your while if you can get it to stick, especially if you have a Diregraf Captain or two in play. Finally, we have a trio of token-making sorceries in Reap the Seagraf and Moan of the Unhallowed. The Reaps are less efficient overall, costing you four mana per Zombie token assuming you’ve flashed it back, but are easier to cast. The Moan’s double-Black cost is a little bit tougher, but its tokens cost 2.75 mana apiece- a comparative bargain.
To help ensure that you get the right land in play to cast your army, the deck also includes a pair of Evolving Wilds, a gratefully-received mana fixer in a set that’s somewhat short on them. All in all, it’s an impressive tribal package, and its synergies and overlaps seem like it will be a fun one to play. We’ll test it out in the field, and report back in two days. Until then, bar the door and don’t go out after nightfall!
Yay Dark Ascension! I’ve been reading up on the spoilers, and have been looking forward to your reviews here for awhile. Did Wizards hook you up early with the decks?
I built a blue-black zombies deck when Innistrad first came out around Grimgrin Corpse-born, and while it’s fun to play, it’s definitely going to be stronger with some of the new DKA cards. Curious to see how this deck plays compared to mine…
Not this time- it looks like the care packages are just now getting delivered. We never know ahead of time if we’re getting one, so I may have a surprise awaiting me at home today… or I may not. Fingers crossed!
What about the flavor parallels between Kamigawa and Innistrad? True, both have lower power levels then the previous Mirrodin blocks, but it should be remembered that both are built from a “flavor” first perspective. Indeed, the flip cards are predecessors to the double face cards and both sets are focused on a specific theme: Innistrad with gothic horror and Kamigawa with feudal japan. Although correlation is not causation, the two blocks most focused on flavor have lower power levels then other blocks. It will be interesting to see if this pattern holds true into future flavor sets.
That’s a great extrapolation on the parallels between the two sets. Although Innistrad is by rights the descendant of Odyssey, there’s certainly a family resemblance to Kamigawa!
Its a only a descendant to Odyssey via the graveyard mechanic. Torment might match the bleak horror theme, but the idea that there is a wide-spread and general conflict between the mundane and the super-natural, present in both Innistrad and Kamigawa (horror v. human, spirit v. physical) is absent from the “black set”.
True, though it’s fair to say that the ‘graveyard mechanic’ was what really started the idea for Innistrad altogether. Rosewater talks about how he and Brady Dommermuth came up with Innistrad out of what they felt were shortcomings with Odyssey. http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/158
I personally love the zombies in Innistrad block, both mechanics-wise and flavor-wise. At the pre-release just this weekend I managed to sweep a booster-draft on the back of increasing confusion, a geralf’s mindcrusher (passed in favor of Elbrus, for some reason), and a pack 3 undead alchemist.
Further, the dichotomy in flavor between the zombie factions is great. On one hand, you have the black ghoulcallers and their graf minions, who are mindless, disposable creatures filling the field with tokens and using the graveyard as a place to have their servants bide their time before coming back via things like Ghoulcaller’s chant, Zombie Apocalypse, and Unbreathing Horde. For them, the loss of one body is no worry as they have a dozen more (literally, in some cases) to take their place, seeking to overwhelm and tear apart their enemies with sheer numbers.
On the other hand, we have blue’s Skaberen and their Skaab projects. Rather than raising corpses as-is, they work and improve on them: sewing on strange new parts like extra limbs and wings, binding the flesh together with rune-etched plates, filling their undead machine with a mix of lamp oil and angel’s blood, and finally educating their pets in exactly how to do their assigned task rather than the simple commands used by geistcallers. The result is much larger and more specialized creations, though not without a more substantial investment of mana and fresh graveyard bodies to create them.
This leads to a bit of conflict between the two in both flavor and deckbuilding that’s evident to even the most casual of magic players: do I want Skaab Ruinator or Unbreathing Horde? Mikaeus the Unhallowed is great, but everything becoming harder to kill just makes it harder for me to cast these skaabs so they can benefit from it, doesn’t it? Can I be sure my graveyard will get creatures to exile when I have a bunch of token generating instants and sorceries?
And then of course you have the gold zombies like Diregraf Captain, which benefit both sides quite symmetrically. Kill my Gravecrawler? lose 1 life and I bring it back. Kill my Screetching Skaab? Lose 1 life and I make Relentless Skaabs from it’s corpse.
Overall I think it makes for a fun and surprisingly deep tribe, though not necessarily one that will sweep any pro-tours. I’ll save my evaluation of the deck until after it’s playtested, but I will say I’m a tad disappointed by the lack of undying zombies, most likely due to there already being a designated undying precon.
I’d wanted to get more into the divergent flavour between the two types of Zombies in the article, but it didn’t quite fit the tone of the feature I have another article coming up this week on another site about the deck, but alas, ran out of room. I couldn’t have said it better myself, nicely done! I’ve been thrilled to see the Skaabs in Blue, as Blue/Black is already one of my favourite colour pairings as it is.
Are you saying that the Innistrad block is a reset like the Kamigawa block was a reset?
Exactly. Innistrad’s taken a step back from power, and filled in the gap with tremendous flavour. It’s like a meal that’s so delicious, it takes you a little while to realise how small the portion size is. One of my favourite writers over at GM- Abe Sargent- mentioned the power level in his casual review of Dark Ascension today, saing it felt “watered down,” and I responded on this very topic in the comments.
I don’t know if you’d want to consider this idea for a “Whispers of the Muse”, but I wonder if you could uses “Relentless Dead” as a basis for a Zombie Horde deck?
Good news, Zack! This went up last week at Gathering Magic:
Not only that, but I’ve tied in a giveaway too, and you’ve got a couple more days to enter. Enjoy!