Dark Ascension: Grave Power Review (Part 1 of 2)
If there’s a common complaint against the Intro Pack decks, it’s in the matter of thematic consistency. It’s not unusual to hear laments along the lines of, “half of the cards are focused around a theme, and the other half are just filler.” Even the most charitable precon fan has to admit that this has a ring of truth, and indeed the last deck we reviewed, Swift Justice, seemed to suffer from a lack of pronounced clarity (though it still did the business with Monstrous Surprise).
Today’s deck puts that notion to bed.
Looking at the past few years of Intro Packs, there has been a gradual improvement over time. The Alara ones were decent, the Zendikar ones worse, but since that low point there has been a steady progression back to a product that resembles the Theme Decks of old- if not in complexity, at least in consistency. As we’ll soon see, Grave Power by any yardstick is a sure marker of progress.
It also has a very interesting pedigree. Looking back at all of the mono- and bi-coloured Theme Decks/Intro Packs over the course of Magic’s history (discounting the mono-coloured decks of the early Core Sets), it quickly becomes apparent that some archetypes/pairings are more popular than others, but that this popularity has shifted somewhat over time. Let’s first look at the Theme Decks, which first appeared late in 1997 with Tempest and ended with Eventide in the Summer of 2008. Here’s how the decks break down:
As you can see, in this larger period of time we find quite a bit of stratification. You have your most common builds in White/Blue, Blue/Black, Black/Red, and Red/Green, all allied-colour pairings. Mono-Red fares the worst, and indeed we didn’t even see this type of build arise until 2003’s Goblin Mob in Scourge. But looking past mono-coloured decks, the Blue/Green pairing is sadly tied for last, with a rate of 4.72% of all decks falling into that category. Boros (Red/White) would share this ignominy, but not for long- it would soon nearly double in prevalence.
Now into the modern era of preconstructed deck design, and we find some interesting changes. For one thing, Wizards has settled into a much more static formula for constructing its Intro Packs. Aside from the tri-colour Shards of Alara and Conflux decks, everything that comes in a box with a booster is either one or two colours. White/Black decks have clearly been unfavoured with only two representatives of the type (Magic 2011’s Blades of Victory, and the soon-to-be-reviewed Dark Sacrifice in this set).
Still, that’s not much consolation for Blue/Green (“Simic,” to use its Ravnica-based slang), who still charted fairly low overall. Why the discrepancy? Why are some combinations so commonplace, whereas others are occasional constructions at best? What is it about, say, Red and Green that makes them a more attractive outlet rather than Blue and Green? The short answer here is intersection and compatibility.
One of the strengths of the game is that every colour has its own separate and distinct remit. You typically don’t look to Green for damage, for instance, or White for countermagic, though this being Magic there are always exceptions (see: Hornet Sting, Lapse of Certainty). It’s only natural, then, that given these distinct and disparate areas of influence, some colours play nicer with each other than others do. To get an idea of this at work, let’s lastly get a look at the combined table for all Intro Packs and Theme Decks:
The terms intersection and compatibility are similar, but with some slight differences. Intersection refers to that area where the interests of the two colours overlap. Clearly, not every colour has an equally broad intersection with the others. Compatability indicates the degree to which the two can work together. In a sense, every colour is ‘compatible’ with every other- if we cram Blue into a mono-coloured deck purely for card drawing, then in that sense the two colours are “compatible.” But if each colour isn’t furthering the aims of the other (intersecting), it can be said that they’re really just working in parallel rather than in tandem.
Sound confusing? Let’s pull some examples off of the above graph, since Wizards’ creative output itself gives us some clues (“by their works shall we know them”). The most common colour pairing is Red and Green. Why? Because both colours tend to enjoy settling their disputes in the red zone. Red swarms you with cheap, early creatures, while Green is the colour best suited for powering out big, fat beaters. Then consider that Green is superb in the area of combat tricks for red-zone domination (see: Giant Growth) and mana ramping to deploy the expensive closers ahead of schedule (see: Rampant Growth), while Red brings burn to the table to help open up the red zone by blasting away defenders, then finishing off a gravely wounded opponent (see: Lightning Bolt). From the game’s perspective, these two are like chocolate and peanut butter. They’re both compatible- burn cards and beat cards are focused on inflicting damage- as well as complimentary (intersecting)- burn cards can kill defenders and let the beaters do more damage to the opponent.
In that light, perhaps the reason that Green and Blue have not commonly been paired is because they don’t really complement one another. Drawing more cards is always great, but if you’re Green you really want to be pouring on the offensive pressure rather than using a turn to refill your hand. Even worse might be countermagic. Sure, you might be able to ward off a Doom Blade targeting your Grizzly Bears, but at the end of the day wouldn’t you rather just have two Grizzly Bears out at the same time, punishing your opponent for double the damage each turn until they draw that removal? That counter will sit in your hand dead and useless until that moment you need it, while that extra attacker will pile on the damage until they answer it. If you’re Green, you’ll be reaching for Red almost every time.
There have been times where Blue and Green have intersected in the recent past. Look at Zendikar block, where both Zendikar and Worldwake featured the two colours together (Unstable Terrain, Mysterious Realms). Here we found that Blue brought a little extra to the table. With both decks focusing on landfall creatures which got bigger whenever you played a land, being able to grab extra cards later in the game through card drawing was a great way to get more mileage out of your creatures. In theory, this seemed like a natural fit, if a little forced- both decks in the end were disappointments. That brings us around to today’s deck, Grave Power, perhaps the most compatible pairings of these two colours the precon world has seen to date.
The Stuff of Nightmares
As is clear from the decklist, Grave Power is a combat deck of sorts, heavily imbalanced in favour of creatures. But it’s not your typical combat deck, filled with removal and combat tricks- indeed, it has virtually none of these. Instead, the primary objective of the deck is to go either through or around your opponent’s creatures, rather than meet them as equals upon the field of battle. To do this, it packs in both evasive cards as well as those that draw their power from the size of your graveyard, and then it tries to fill that graveyard as fast as it can. In that sense, it’s a very unusual form of a ramping strategy, but instead of ramping up land to play fat beaters, it plays skinny Green beaters which become fat beaters by “ramping” up cards into the graveyard- something Blue is quite good at in this set.
A great example of this comes as we enter into the heavily-populated two-drop territory. The Deranged Assistant satisfies both types of ramp, building up your manabase at the same time it builds up the graveyard two cards at a time. As such, its a perfect fit for this deck. Its counterpart is the Boneyard Wurm, the first of the graveyard-dependent beaters. Get one out early enough, and it will continue to provide an offensive threat as more and more creatures appear on the scrapheap. The Ambush Viper is a form of removal here, occasionally referred to as the “Green Doom Blade.” Unless he onrushing creature has first strike, you should be able to force a trade by flashing this fellow into an attacker’s path. Since that will almost certainly kill the Viper, too, that’s a drawback that becomes an upside here- another body for the ‘yard.
A trio of Dawntreader Elks are strictly-better Runeclaw Bears, no downside but with a very useful mana ramping ability. We see again that the drawback of losing a creature (sacrificing it, in this case) is happily offset by the fact that its death will pay dividends later when you deploy a Boneyard Wurm or similar creature. The final creature here is a bit of a miss, the Alluring Siren. She’s a card that makes her way into precon decks with fair frequency, and here she likely serves as a sort of removal- red rover, red rover, bring one of their creatures over and then kill it with a block. Her weakness is that there is no penalty for not attacking, meaning an opponent could trigger their tap-ability target (such as a Deranged Assistant) to avoid having to be drafted into the attack. Still, it’s a fine collection of two-drops, and having so many gives the deck extra aggression by allowing you to start doubling up summons once you land that fourth mana source.
Blue adds some more utility in the three-drop slot with a trio of Armored Skaabs. Another Blue card that brings two very useful things to the table, the Skaab both gives you a healthy dose of self-mill as well as a highly effective blocker. Remember, this is a deck that is at its happiest if the red zone is hopelessly bogged down, because its either going to go overtop of it or smash in with something unspeakably huge. 4 toughness goes a long way to slowing things down. The Æther Adept is another example of the tricky removal you have here, entering play with an Unsummon coming along for the ride. You don’t have a lot of tempo plays here, so this is’t something designed to stall your opponent’s momentum. As a singleton, you’ll either want to use it to get rid of a choice defender to set up a lethal alpha strike, or to bounce something that has an aura attached to it to kill off the aura. With a lack of countermagic, the old bounce-then-counter combo isn’t available to you.
Green offers another sac-effect card in the Brindle Boar. As a 2/2 body it’s not especially impressive, but it can be popped for free to give you a dose of life. Were it not for the fact that this deck draws its power from the graveyard, it would be a very poor inclusion indeed- lifegain is useless if you’re ahead, and often not as helpful as you’d think if you’re behind. However, it’s another solid inclusion here as it can buy you a little extra time to establish control- and feed the deck’s combat engine when you slaughter it and fry it up for bacon. The deck’s first rare also makes an appearance here in Splinterfright. Another card in the mien of the the Boneyard Wurm, the Splinterfright is a much nastier model for a mere one mana (and one rarity level) more. Not only does it derive its power and toughness from the number of creatures you’ve managed to pack your graveyard with- and not only does it add trample to the mix- but it also perpetuates itself by giving you a free two-card mill every upkeep. Note that this is not an optional (“may”) ability- go up against a dedicated mill deck and if you can’t finish off your opponent (for instance, they lock it down with a Bonds of Faith), it could run you out of cards.
Thus far we’ve seen the creatures that go through your opposition. In the four-drops, we begin to find those that go over it. The first of these is the humble Moon Heron. This is an example of making a functional reprint out of a useful card when the original is fine mechanically but simply doesn’t fit the setting, for the Heron is a reskinned Snapping Drake to conform to a world where dragons and the like are exceptionally rare. There’s not a lot to say about the Heron given it’s a vanilla card, but three power in the air can be quite strong. Joining it are a pair of Tower Geists. It might not jump out as obvious, but this Geist is very powerful for its cost. First, the Geist replaces itself in your hand, an ability which generally costs . Deduct that from the cost of the Geist, and you’re looking at a 2/2 flyer for – a steal! If that wasn’t enough, that card it gets you is one of your choice from the top two cards of your library- and the other card goes (happily enough) right into the graveyard.
Moving on to the four-drops, the aerial theme continues with a couple of Chasm Drakes from Magic 2012. Another value card, this one gives you a 3/3 flyer that can pick up and carry one of your groundlings over the top of the red zone to strike- a great way to get past the very ground stall that you’ve helped to create. We also get a pair of simple 5/5 closers here in the Hollowhenge Beasts to kick off the five-drops, and the last instance of body-bound removal with an Acidic Slime. Able to destroy most anything without a power/toughness on it, the Acidic Slime is a double threat with its deathtouch, giving your opponent another reason to hold off on the attack.
Finally, we come to the deck’s premium foil rare, the Ghoultree. This 10/10 behemoth is somewhat unusual when compared to other deck’s premium rares. Generally speaking, most such marquee cards are means to an end- they help you do what the deck was already trying to do, but do it better and/or faster. The Ghoultree can be said to be just as much an end to a means. From that perspective, it’s like a mini-game with a high-upside reward. Eight mana is a lot to get to, even in many preconstructed matches. But if you’ve been playing Grave Power wisely and effectively, stocking the larder with corpses, you are rewarded by getting this massive fellow out that much sooner. Typically you don’t see the deck’s objectives so clearly interacting with your ability to get your foil card into play, and that’s quite a refreshing change. Obviously, a 10/10 is either going to kill your opponent or die trying, probably doing one or the other quite quickly. And if you’ve got a Chasm Drake on the board… well, insert diabolical laughter here.
No Difference Between the Graves
Of course, packing in such creature density means that you’re not going to get a lot otherwise, though Grave Power tries its level best to make the most of what’s afforded it. To its credit, it ties in quite well with the fill-the-graveyard strategy the deck is centered upon. Mulch and Tracker’s Instincts are quite similar, as both let you look for a particular card type from amongst the top four cards of your library, with the remainder going into the graveyard. Mulch gives you every land you uncover, helping you stay on course to deploy your larger bodies on schedule, while Tracker’s Instincts lets you pick out a single creature from amongst those revealed.
Two other cards- Gnaw to the Bone and Grim Flowering– reward you handsomely if you’ve managed to stock the larder. Gnaw isn’t terribly exciting, for the same reasons mentioned above for the Brindle Boar- but the fact that it has flashback is quite useful in a deck where a number of your cards will be headed sirectly from library to graveyard. The Grim Flowerings are particularly nasty, since Green doesn’t usually get a lot of options to draw additional cards. It’s expensive, but cast late enough in the game (when you’re most likely to need those extra cards) it can give you a ton of options.
Our last couple of cards are ones that enhance your existing army. You get a pair of Wreath of Geists, an aura which draws its power from how many creatures are in your graveyard (sound familiar?). Though it suffers from the usual drawbacks that auras do in terms of card disadvantage, the good news here is that Innistrad is a very removal-weak environment. You’re more likely to have something like this stick around for a bit before losing it, and by then you might have well gotten your card’s worth of output out of it (according to Mike Flores and “the philosophy of fire,” a card is worth about 3 points of damage). Finally, there’s the Executioner’s Hood, which is reasonable to both play and equip- unless, of course, you’re up against another Blue/Green deck. The Hood strongly supports the tactic of bogging down combat, letting a single of your creatures sneak through the lines for damage.
Overall, this deck looks thrilling to play. It’s admirably focused, with almost every card either supporting or benefitting from the deck’s central strategy and the tactics that support it. As is often said, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, so we’ll take this into the field and see how it performs. We’ll be back in two days to give you the final assessment!