Dark Ascension: Monstrous Surprise Review (Part 2 of 2)
Moving on through the Intro Packs of Dark Ascension, it’s now time to test out the undying mechanic. Early feedback seems to be that its’ quite robust, but the jury’s still out until we’ve had a chance to give it a test drive. Joining me is Jimi, who has opted to pilot Swift Justice. Will I be able to take her down, or will it end up being me who’s in for the surprise?
I’m on the play to kick things off, and lead with a Forest while Jimi opens with a Mountain. I maych it with a Mountain of my own next turn, letting me play a Rampant Growth for a second one (I’ve a Forest in hand already). Keeping pace, Jimi puts down a Plains and Torch Fiend.
Now turn 3, I upshift with an Orchard Spirit, a 2/2 pseudo-evasive body. Jimi’s answer is a Midnight Guard, which is useful but not against the Spirit. My turn-4 attack with the Spirit is the first of the game, and Jimi goes down to 18. She hits back hard, though, with a Lightning Elemental leading the way followed by the Guard and Fiend.
Down to 12 life, I attack back with the Orchard Spirit, and then play a Rolling Temblor. This kills my Spirit, but also takes Jimi’s Fiend and Elemental with it. Jimi’s Midnight Guard, however, survives the inferno, and she turns him sideways to take me to 10. She then adds a Forge Devil, directing its compulsory 1 damage to her Guard. It’s an aggressive play, but she’s in the right position to make it. Looking to stabilise, I’m relieved when turn 6 brings me the Flayer of the Hatebound… until Jimi’s answering Fiend Hunter takes it out of the game. She attacks for 3, and I’m left at 7.
Back on the draw, Jimi and I both open with land and nothing else, before I add a turn-2 Rampant Growth to grab a Mountain. Her second turn is a miss (outside hitting her next land drop). Back to me, I land the game’s first creature, the mighty Lumberknot. Jimi manages a Torch Fiend to ward off any early strikes.
Now turn 4, I add a Goblin Arsonist and pass. Jimi plays the Lightning Elemental, but it gives me a terrific opening. At the end of her turn I Fling my Arsonist at her Torch Fiend, and use the Arsonist’s ping to knock off the Elemental as well. It’s a two-for-two, but now my Lumberknot is a fat and sassy 3/3. Things get worse when I deploy the Greatsword next turn, and having not missed a land drop I can equip it as well. Across the red zone it goes, carving out a 7-point slice of Jimi’s life. It hurts, but she stabilises with a Night Revelers.
I keep the pressure on with a turn-6 Rage Thrower, and this time Jimi opts to attack. Not wanting to lose either creature, I let her Revelers pass and go down to 16. With Jimi wide open, I smell a trick, but decide to call her on it with an 11-point attack. Sure enough, the Thrower ‘dies by the sword’ when Jimi shows the Burning Oil, but it does make the Lumberknot a little bigger. Jimi’s now at 5 life, but defiant she attacks again with the Revelers to leave me down to 12. She then shores up her exposed flank with an Assault Griffin and passes.
It’s now turn 8, and I drop a Strangleroot Geist to add to my attack. Jimi’s had enough, though, and she blocks the Lumberknot, using a Rally the Peasants to force the trade for the Greatsword-wielding Lumberknot. Nevertheless, the Geist gets in to cut her to 4, then I equip the now-vacant Greatsword to it and pass. Back to Jimi, she kills the Geist with a Wrack with Madness, and though its undying lets it come back as a 3/2, it’s come back for the last time. If it dies now, it’s truly at rest. Naturally, I send the Geist in for 6 on my next turn, and Jimi is forced to trade out with her Revelers, leaving the board fairly deserted. I drop a Goblin Arsonist, then give him the ill-fated ‘Sword. Jimi plays an Erdwal Ripper and passes.
Unwilling to let momentum die, I attack with the Goblin to force her to trade out her Ripper. Both creatures die, but the Goblin pings Jimi for 1 on the way out. She’s now down to 3 life, with me at 12. And right about here is where things go pear-shaped for me. With a hand consisting of a single Mountain, I draw a straight of land for the rest of the game. Jimi plays a turn-12 Niblis of the Urn, then goes into overdrive with (appropriately enough) a turn-13 Stromkirk Noble. It takes me just a few more turns to die.
Having been widely panned in its own review, I’m now worried about getting swept by Swift Justice. Again on the play, I finally land one of my one-drops, the Young Wolf. For her part, Jimi brings out a Traveler’s Amulet. Back to me, The Wolf nibbles in for 1, but with no other open option I pass. Jimi taps out to play a Niblis of the Urn.
Now turn 3, I attack in for another point of damage, fearless with my Wolf thanks to its undying ability. I then add a Pyreheart Wolf and end my turn. Jimi swings back with the Niblis to put me at 19, pops her Amulet for a land to play a second Niblis of the Urn and passes. Back to me, I attack for 2 with my Wolf pack, happy to add a second Pyreheart Wolf in my second main phase. Jimi looks to make it a race with an Assault Griffin after sending both of her flyers in to leave me at 17.
A turn-5 Goblin Arsonist follows an attack by all of my Wolves, and Jimi fires right back in the air. It’s now a 13-12 game in her favour, and she ends her turn after playing a fourth flyer, the Niblis of the Mist. Back to me, I send the Wolves and Goblin back through the red zone, carving into her for 4 which becomes 7 after I toss off a Wild Hunger. Down to 6, Jimi’s got some thinking to do. Opting to swing for 3 with the Griffin and hang back on defense with the rest, she then deploys a Fiend Hunter to solve the Goblin Arsonist (who could kill off one of her Spirits if it died in battle). She then doubles down by adding a Midnight Guard, shoring up her defenses quite well and buying herself plenty of time.
With her so vulnerable, though, I have little option but to press in for the kill. The Wolves storm in again on turn 7. Thanks to the Pyrehearts, Jimi can’t block any of my creatures with anything less than two of her own. One Niblis of the Urn teams up with a Midnight Guard to block and kill one Pyreheart, and she teams the other Niblis of the Urn with the Fiend Hunter to kill my other Pyreheart. In the first matchup, I trade my Wolf for her Niblis, but in the second I flash back the Wild Hunger to kill off the Fiend Hunter, setting my poor Goblin Arsonist free. The Young Wolf, unblocked, takes Jimi to 5 life. Sadly for Jimi, her turn is a blank.
Now turn 8, I keep the pressure on. My two Pyreheart Wolves, thanks to undying, are back with a +1/+1 counter on each. Again Jimi has to work out a defensive plan to double-block, and she pairs the Assault Griffin and Niblis of the Mist on one Pyreheart, and the other gets blocked by the Midnight Guard and Niblis of the Urn. I accept the trade for the Assault Griffin, but assign my Wolf’s damage to the Midnight Guard to wound it, rather than killing her Niblis. The Young Wolf and Goblin go through iunmolested, leaving Jimi at 3. I follow up with a Rolling Temblor, which very nearly wipes the board. The Arsonist pings Jimi for 1 more on the way out, and my Young Wolf returns as a 2/2. On Jimi’s side of the table, the wounded Midnight Guard perishes, leaving her defenseless but for her Niblis of the Urn. Again, it’s a blank for Jimi.
The Niblis chumps the Young Wolf on turn 9 to keep Jimi alive, but she gets a ray of hope when she draws a Markov Warlord. Stymied, I happily draw and resolve a Nearheath Stalker. Jimi looks to rebuild on the back of a next-turn Night Revelers, but drawing Overrun I’m ablre to get in for that last bit of damage to win the game.
Thoughts & Analysis
Not even the most generous statistical yardstick will tell you that three games (technically four, including the pre-match ‘friendly’ we use to get acquainted with our decks) will provide an adequate statistical sample by which any true measure can be derived. That means that at times, the playtesting isn’t going to show us something significantly different from what we feel the deck is capable of. This is one of those times. Looking at the deck’s card list, 11 of its 22 creatures have undying, but going by the results of the first two games you might be forgiven for drawing an altogether quite different conclusion. It was only in the third game that the mechanic was given its due.
That said, the deck put up a decent showing for itself. We’ll never know for certain, but Game Two should probably have been a win- all I needed to do was draw a credible threat to deal the last 3 points of damage on Jimi and the game was won. But this is Magic, and variance dictates that some games we’ll have too much land, other games not enough, and hopefully most of them will be somewhere around “just right.”
Even with a lack of more undying creatures, the central problem of the deck seemed to be one of mana cost. With a total of eight cards with a converted mana cost (CMC) of 5 or more, it was always going to be a bit clunky and congested (when I’d lost the friendly, I’d accumulated four such cards in hand, and had only managed to get one out before dying). The deck rightly tries to remedy this with a bit of mana ramp (a pair of Rampant Growths), but it doesn’t go far enough. If it wanted to keep that curve and be aggressive about it (curving out sooner rather than later), there was a simple solution available: Dawntreader Elk. A solid two-mana 2/2, for an extra it can be sacrificed and traded for a land. That sacrifice bit is a synergistic bonus as well from the perspective of the Rage Thrower or Lumberknot. Alas, three of them were put into the Grave Power deck (a fine fit), so it would seem they were off the table here. A pity.
For its faults, Monstrous Surprise is capable of some very strong plays. When I died in Game One I’d just managed to land my Flayer of the Hatebound. Had I lived and had an opening, I’d have swung with it for 4, cast the Fling that I had in my hand for another 4, then once undying kicked in and it came back to the battlefield, that would give me a further 5 points of damage- 13 damage in one go is certainly no joke. The other undying creatures themselves are very solid and fun to play. It’s a very different experience to go into combat with them knowing that when they die, they’re actually going to come back stronger.
Outside of that mechanical twist, the deck itself is a fairly generic Red/Green beats, but it does hint at a lot of potential for improvement. We hope the Wolves from Game Three will forgive us when we declare that this deck is strictly middle of the pack, though if you’re looking for a great fixer-upper, you could certainly do worse.
Hits: Undying is a tremendously strong mechanic that adds a ton of value to a card; a number of “hot potato” cards that your opponent may not want to block make for some interesting combat interactions
Misses: A bit too expensive on the back end of the curve, increasing the odds of an unplayable hand/draw; removal package a bit clunky and cumbersome
OVERALL SCORE: 4.00/5.00