Dark Ascension: Swift Justice Review (Part 1 of 2)
Taking its name from the guild representing the military and constabulary force present in the endless urban sprawl of Ravnica, Boros decks- those comprised of Red and White- are one of the more common archetypes amongst preconstructed Magic. Since the introduction of the Intro Pack, we’ve seen a wide variety of them already, and that’s not even counting those amongst the previous precon product, the theme decks.
Boros decks share some common elements amongst them, and it’s a measure of the deck’s success to what degree it can put its own unique stamp on the model. In general, Boros decks look to capitalise on the strengths of its complimentary colours. Its creatures tend to be on the smaller side, taking advantage of a large supply of cheap bodies to try and obtain battlefield superiority early in the game, while the opponent may be just getting started. For that reason, Goblins and Soldiers are commonplace, as these are the representative tribes for these colours that tend to carry chaper pricetags.
White often brings some evasion as well in the form of flyers. In the noncreature support side of things, both are strong at removal. Often for White this may be in the form of an enchantment (see: Pacifism), while Red’s is nearly always burn. As an added benefit, burn often gives the deck reach across the table, particularly useful when an opponent is crippled or when the red zone has become congested and attacking unprofitable.
With creature combat stalled, Boros is at its most vulnerable, as their smaller creatures are susceptible to being outclassed the longer the game goes on. To help remedy that and make the most of the narrow, early window of opportunity, combat tricks are de rigeur. It’s not the most efficient use of a card, but maintaining momentum is a priority for Boros.
Reliance upon standard archetypes can be a double-edged sword. The risk run in doing so is that the deck won’t sufficiently differentiate itself from its kin, leading to a dull and rather repetitive feel. For instance, Worldwake’s Blue/White Flyover tried to spice things up a bit with some multikicker and a minor lifegain subtheme, but overall the deck couldn’t escape feeling like “just another skies deck.”
On the other hand, it can be fun to see how Boros appears from set to set, and to discover how each set Boros appears in is sculpted by the cards and mechanics on offer. Magic 2010, as a Core Set, might not have had the sexiest Boros deck to come down the pike (We Are Legion), but successive iterations have had some very novel approaches. Mirrodin Besieged gave us Battle Cries, which amped up its combat power through use of the battle cry mechanic. The very next set, we were treated to a radical remake when New Phyrexia brought us the Phyrexian-mana-filled Life for Death. Both of these brought a new twist on the standard model, whereas Worldwake’s Rapid Fire was less successful being hobbled by some poor creature choices.
So now let’s take a look at the next installment in the Boros series, Dark Ascension’s Swift Justice.
Frenzy at the First Whiff
With aggressive decks such as Swift Justice and other such Boros builds, the first few turns are always critical. In large part this is because such decks tend to adopt a swarming strategy, flooding the board with cheap attackers, and each turn that goes by without the floodgates opening is a turn in an opponent’s favour. Towards that end, it’s not only important to have early options, but that they be quality ones. Nobody gets excited when a Mons’s Goblin Raiders hits the table, but credit to Swift Justice that it takes this point so seriously that it devotes one of its two rare slots to it. Against most any deck- but especially a Humans-based deck, the Stromkirk Noble is a threatening, must-answer card. Green mages probably have the least to fear from it, and since their beaters tend to stay reasonably well on-curve (2/2’s for two mana, 3/3’s for three, etc), they’ll have the best chance to offer a defensive answer.
Next there’s a pair of Elite Vanguards, a common sight in any aggressive White preconstructed deck. Two power for one mana is a solid offer, even if they are a wee bit brittle on the back-end. Finally, we come to our first new Dark Ascension card, the Forge Devil. A slimmed-down approximation of a Blisterstick Shaman, it will usually be better to hold onto it until you find something you can kill with it, such as a 1-toughness nuisance utility creature, or a mortally wounded defender in the red zone.
The two-drop slot is the deck’s heaviest, with a total of seven creatures clocking in here. The Ashmouth Hound is a nicely-priced card which compares favourably to the stock-standard Goblin Piker. The defender-pinging ability is highly relevant, for it provides protection against getting traded out by any 1/1 creature your opponent might have laying about. It also means that the Hound can trade for any three-toughness defender- not a bad deal for two mana, and the deck gives you two of them. Continuing with the Red 2/1’s here, you also get a Bloodcrazed Neonate and a Torch Fiend. The Neonate is a vastly inferior card to the Noble, being that you have no control over her actions in combat and her 1 toughness on turn 2 (or thereafter) is quite a liability. Many times she’ll simply be gobbled up by a stout defender, or traded with some redundant mob across the table. Play her early if you can, but consider her lucky if she takes something out with her. The Torch Fiend, meanwhile, is simply a dose of artifact hate on a stick.
White gives us a few cards here as well. Just as the Torch Fiend can solve an artifact problem for you, the Silverchase Fox has enxhantments covered. It’s worth noting as well that the Fox is a 2/2, reflecting White’s cheap-creature efficiency. Finally, there’s the Niblis of the Urn. This Niblis has a very simple but elegant design, nicely rewarding you for going on the attack. The eternal fear of a weenie/swarm deck is that they run out of steam before their opponent is dead, and repeatable tap-downs while attacking (as opposed to, say, Gideon’s Lawkeeper or Avacynian Priest) deprive an opponent of their best defender each turn. In some ways the card is reminiscent of the Signal Pest from Mirrodin Besieged, a trivial but evasive attacker which nonetheless helped enable profitable attacking.
Next we move on to the three-drops, a slot almost as packed as the one previous. We have another pair of Niblis (Niblises? Niblii?) here, of the Mist variety. For your extra mana you get an additional point of power as well as a modified tap-down effect. Rather than a repeatable-use effect, this one is one-shot-only as it enters the battlefield. That might seem like a disadvantage- and on some levels it is- but the upside is that you get an immediate effect ,rather than having to wait until your Niblis stops being summoning sick. Of course, as enters-the-battlefield effects go, it’s tough to beat the Fiend Hunter. Rather than tap it, it just exiles a creature altogether, though the creature will be returned if the Hunter dies.
Then we have a pair of Midnight Guards, another flavourful addition to the Dark Ascension stable. A solid 2/3, it bolts upright at the slightest noise, but given that most any right-minded opponent will wait until after combat (their second main phase) to summon most creatures, his usefulness will be somewhat reduced. You might indeed find that the Midnight Guard is far more reliable at detecting your own ‘noises’ than your opponent’s. Finally, we find another Vampire in the Erdwal Ripper. Like the Bloodcrazed Neonate, it’s a 2/1 with the Vampires’ “slith mechanic” of gaining +1/+1 counters after dealing combat damage to a player. For the extra , however, there’s a massive jump in quality. First, the Ripper has haste. This means that even when drawn later in the game, you can time the attack to ensure it gets through by catching your opponent’s creatures tapped out, or just to add some additional pressure on the swing. It also isn’t saddled with the “attacks each turn if able” which, while another great example of the block’s top-down design, is responsible for more dead Neonates than any other cause in the game.
As we enter four-drop territory here, we find the deck is uncommonly robust on the back-end, with a number of larger creatures and solid finishers. The Assault Griffin is fairly pedestrian, but still offers an evasive 3 power. In addition to two of those, you also get a pair of Lightning Elementals. Like the Erdwal Ripper, the Elementals’ haste lets them achieve the element of surprise, and 4 power is a pretty big surprise. The absence of trample hurts them quite a bit, but you can’t expect to get everything for its very splashable mana cost. Unlike similar creatures (see Arc Runner, Ball Lightning), the Lightning Elemental also can live to attack another day once its on the battlefield.
At the top of the mana curve, we have some very solid options. The Night Revelers are a much-improved Berserkers of Blood Ridge. Although in general Innistrad has been a lower-powered environment, it’s nice to see the occasional upgrade. We also have the stalwart and faithful Serra Angel, another staple of White preconstructed decks. While there’s little to be said about her that hasn’t been said already, she’s a solid two-way player and well worth her cost.
Winding down now, we arrive at the Markov Warlord. Packing two copies, the Warlord is another 4/4 body with haste, as well as a falter ability twice as potent as the Crossway Vampire from the main set. He comes at a steep cost- six mana- but is a superlative alpha-strike-enabling closer. Finally, there’s the deck’s foil premium rare, Requiem Angel. A 5/5 flyer is already solid enough, but she also yields 1/1 Spirit tokens with flying whenever another one of your non-Spirit creatures die. Since nearly everything you have isn’t a Spirit, you should get some mileage out of her. That said, you’re probably not going to reap a full harvest out of her- when a 5/5 aerial body hits the table, either it dies or your opponent does, in fairly short order.
Follow the Light
As mentioned in the introduction, when typically looking at a Boros deck we can expect to see two things predominate the noncreature support: removal and combat trickery. Here Swift Justice doesn’t disappoint. That said, as we’ve often seen with Innistrad and now Dark Ascension, things aren’t always what they seem. Like creature kill, burn seems to have more than the usual number of hoops here. You get two copies of each of two spells, Burning Oil and Wrack with Madness. Burning Oil is your cheap instant, but with a caveat- it’s only good against attacking or blocking creatures. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we often see White spells with that very restriction (see: Rebuke) and, unsurprisingly, Burning Oil requires White mana to flash back.
Wrack with Madness is a colour-shifted version of Repentance, forcing a creature to essentially commit seppuku. Wrack , however, costs more than Repentance, remaining a sorcery all the while. In the opening review of Dark Ascension, we discussed how the set is poised to decrease the game’s current power level, and slight upticks in cost is just one of several ways to do this. In today’s Casual Nation column on Gathering Magic, Abe Sargent compared Bone to Ash to Exclude as another such example, though we differ in our conclusions (as I wrote in the comments there).
Next up we have the combat tricks, consisting of a pair of Rally the Peasants and a Skillful Lunge. The latter in particular takes the role of removal-in-disguise, as it typically should kill whatever your creature is blocking/blocked by- otherwise, why play it? The Rally the Peasants has a broader application, since it affects all of your creatures. Swift Justice looks to live up to its name with aggressive evasion, either innate (flying) or manufactured (faltering/tapdown effects). Thos should give your opponent’s defense some holes for your beaters to slip through, and cards like this ensure that you get the most out of your attack. Indeed, so focused is the deck on this stratagem that there’s even a copy of Nightbird’s Clutches here as if to underline the point.
The last card in the deck is the Traveler’s Amulet, and it comes equipped with two. There’s enough weight at the back of the mana curve that you have the potential to stall if you miss too many land drops, so the Amulets will come in handy. With one-third of your creatures costing four or more mana, you’ll be grateful to have them when you need them.
That completes our breakdown of the deck, but the really fun part comes next. We’ll be taking it up against some opposition, and return to give it a final score. See you in two days’ time!