Dark Ascension: Dark Sacrifice Review (Part 1 of 2)
By the late 1980’s, Dungeons & Dragons was having itself something of an image problem. The game, first published in 1974, had never shied away from adopting the terms and imagery of the occult, a fact which went largely unnoticed while the game was still in its infancy. Once the game attained more and more success- and increased prominence- it attracted the attention of those who felt that it was not just adopting a cosmetic coat of paint, but rather truly was somehow a conduit by which players communed and transacted with infernal powers.
Other forms of entertainment, from books to music, came under much the same treatment. Far from the bumbling cartoon character of today’s reality television, Ozzy Osbourne was once the very poster child of the supposed link between heavy metal and the forces of supernatural evil. This may all seem a bit ludicrous and preposterous with the perspective of a couple decades, when parents are quite rightly more worried about drug addiction and someone bringing a gun to school with a list of names in their pocket. The modern bogeyman of today’s sinister music fan is the RIAA, not the PMRC.
That said, for all the escapism that our games provide, one simply cannot disregard the prevailing cultural climate. In a perfect world, you ignore the critics (many of whom aren’t buying your products anyway) and release what you want. A successful business realises that power ultimately rests in the hands of the consumer- or, in the gaming industry, often in the gamer’s parents. There’s little point thumbing your nose at the world if it sees you going bankrupt and disappearing from significance shortly thereafter. Though undeniably galling to some, concessions and compromises often have to be made, a sort of “middle ground” found.
So it was for Dungeons & Dragons. The game’s third supplemental release in 1976, Eldritch Wizardry, left little to the imagination with its racy cover, and introduced the concept of Devils and Demons to the game. When the game’s First Edition came along in 1977, the infernal entities quite naturally came along for the ride. From minor demons (quasits) right on up through the “big bads” like Orcus and Demogorgon, advanced-level characters had no shortage of evil to go up against. That these entities were presented as villains mattered little in the court of public opinon, however. They were there, and there was enough. By the mid-to-late 80’s, at the peak of the hysteria about the supernatural in entertainment attractive to the youth, TSR made a tactical decision to rebrand that segment of the game and thereby draw some of the poison out of the wound.
Beginning with 1989’s 2nd Edition, the answer to the charge “you have demons in your game!” could be straight-facedly answered with, “no, we don’t, we have Tanar’ri.” Devils? Gone to make room for the Baatezu. And down the line it went- the same old creatures updated and given fresh new names to distance themselves from controversy, a state of affairs that would last just over a decade, ending with 2000’s Third Edition. By the turn of the millennia, the pogroms of the 80’s and 90’s began to look rather quaint, perhaps even just a little embarrassing, though as we’ll see they had made a lasting impact on the sensibilities of the gaming industry.
When Magic: the Gathering came along in 1993, the currents of the controversy were still apparent. As Dungeons & Dragons had before it, Magic started out very small and with an uncertain future. It is perhaps not surprising that Wizards of the Coast might have felt itself ‘under the radar,’ as it had a few cards which embraced occult imagery and nomenclature. Cards like Demonic Tutor, Lord of the Pit, and Sacrifice all trespassed into questionable waters, while the most renowned example of this undoubtedly was Unholy Strength. As the game was exploding in popularity, it didn’t take Wizards very long to get a feel for the prevailing winds and begin to sanitise the game. Within a couple years, such iconography had been more or less scrubbed away.
Like the Tanar’ri from Dungeons & Dragons, the Demons didn’t actually go away. Instead, demonic creatures were repositioned as Beasts, Horrors, and other such approximations.
In 1997, Wizards’ success was such that it was able to acquire the faltering TSR, thereby acquiring ownership of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons franchise. While three years later, the “Demon” made its triumphant reappearance in the RPG market as mentioned previously, it would take longer yet for them to return to Magic. In 2004, players were treated to the following column from Brady Dommermuth on the mothership, and the circle was complete. A few years later, the Demons were given an unequivocal endorsement when Duel Decks: Divine vs Demonic hit the shelves in 2009.
Today’s deck is a reminder of the passage through that period of time in gaming’s history. It took the distance of years for a deck like this one to even be able to be printed, given the blending of Innistrad’s overarching theme with some of Magic’s more fundamental mechanics. This was best summed up by a recent column by developer Zac Hill on the mothership, discussing individual cards in Dark Ascension and some of the comments they saw in the development database, Multiverse:
Today’s players have reason to be thankful for the normalising of sensibilities surrounding this theme, for without it we would not be having a White/Black human sacrifice deck to review today. And while Wizards has stated that they will continue to exclude symbols like pentagrams, ankhs, and the like from the game, they claim it not out of worry for the message the symbols themselves send, but rather because those are symbols from the real world that dent the fourth wall of the creative worlds they are crafting. Best of both, who could complain? And with that, we present Dark Sacrifice.
Obedience to None but Demonkind
Dark Sacrifice is built around a very straightforward strategy. Take cards that benefit from having Humans and other creatures sacrificed to them, then around that core pack in creatures that benefit from the sacrifice as well as those that rewards you for offering them up.
We’ll begin first with your sacrifice creatures. Both the Disciple of Griselbrand as well as the Skirsdag Flayer are hungry for blood, and each offers a very different benefit for feeding them. The Disciple isn’t picky- he doesn’t care what he eats so long as it’s a creature- and in return he gives you the gift of life equal to the sacrificed creature’s toughness. The Flayer, on the other hand, is far more picky- nothing but Human on the menu, please- but the payoff makes him one of the deck’s strongest cards. Unlike many Black destroy effects, his is not limited by colour- he’ll kill Black creatures just as easily as White ones.
Next we meet the Falkenrath Torturer. Like the Disciple he’ll make do with anything, but like the Flayer his appetite is all the greater for Humans. With so many to choose from, you should have little difficulty building the Torturer up, then giving him flying to start carving away your opponent’s life. So important is he to winning that the deck sees fit to give you a trio of them. This sort of inherent card disadvantage has so many ways to go wrong, but as we’ll soon see the deck well compensates you for their deaths. Finally at the top of the curve is the deck’s premium rare, the Fiend of the Shadows. A 3/3 flyer, she carries a specter effect (forced discard upon connecting with an opponent), but fittingly in an environment with flashback and graveyard shenanigans she quite usefully exiles the card selected. Hard to kill, she can stay in play when killed just by offering up- what else?- a Human.
With the predators out of the way, we next turn our attention to the victims. As alluded to above, sacrifice strategies tend to fairly scorched-earth in nature. If your opponent manages to thwart your master plan somehow, you don’t get the sacrificed cards back. It is therefore critical that you have some return on the card you’re losing, so that you’re never fully out of a card. For instance, take a look at the deck’s trio of one-drops. You get a pair of Doomed Travelers, which leave behind an improved creature when they die (a 1/1 with evasion rather than just a 1/1). There’s also a Selfless Cathar. The Cathar isn’t entirely a victim here- using his self-sacrifice exempts him from being devoured by one of the Vampires or Clerics as you can only be sacrificed to one effect- but he’s included here as there are others who will cheering on his death all the same, selfless or otherwise.
Next we find the Elder Cathar. A little stronger and perhaps a little wiser than his Selfless cohort, he leaves behind up to two +1/+1 counters in his passing. This is efficiency in the other direction- in the absence of things to benefit from his death, he’s more or less a creature aura in creature form. Pop him just to strengthen another of your creatures, and you’re vulnerable to being two-for-one’d. Better, then, to make sure there’s at least two other cards on the battlefield that will benefit from his passing for optimal results. In the same price range as the Elder Cathar, the Mausoleum Guard and Elgaud Inquisitors are nearly the same card. The only difference between them is that the Inquisitor gives you one less Spirit, but offers lifelink in return. On balance that makes the Guard the stronger card, but as an uncommon, supplies of her are more limited- two Inquisitors it is!
This last major group of creatures include those that don’t have a direct relationship with the circle of life present in Dark Sacrifice, but stand to gain from being around it. Note first a pair of Unruly Mobs. Overpriced at two mana for a 1/1, if they hang around long enough they can grow to a very generous proportion before long. The Village Cannibals are a riff on that- they don’t care of the creatures dying are yours or not, but their trigger is much narrower (Humans only).
Next you get a pair of Galvanic Juggernauts. A bargain-priced 5/5 body,they have the usual Juggernaut stricture that they must attack each turn if able. So why the cut-rate cost? They only untap when something dies. That’s no small drawback, but on the upside it’s an effective pseudo-vigilance effect when your opponent is reduced to chumping it. Similarly waiting for somethign to die is the Wakedancer. She’s an overpriced 2/2 as written, but can grab you a 2/2 Zombie when played at the right time. Finally, there’s the deck’s most optimistic card, the rare Champion of the Parish. Taking no pleasure in the death of his fellow man, he is instead happy just to see them show up.
Terror Felt in Death
The noncreature support suite in Dark Sacrifice is both ample and varied. For one thing, it recognises the potential for waste in the deck’s primary strategy and offers a pair of cards to mitigate that. Unburial Rites reanimates a creature from your graveyard, though were it not for its flashback it would likely not be worth playing since there’s only one creature in the deck that is worth the five mana you need to play this. Still, being able to do it twice justifies the fact that you’re almost certainly overpaying. Gravepurge, on the other hand, sticks as many dead things as you like back on top of your libraty- then lets you draw one of them. If halfway through the game you’ve found that the supply of game is dwindling, this lets you phone in an order for steady delivery.
Your removal package is poor- a pair of Death’s Caresses. A bit of a dissonant note here, these are an absolutely terrible inclusion. For one thing, they’re a five-cost sorcery, meaning that all you’re probably doing for the turn is killing something- the lifegain will typically be trivial. It’s not to say that killing something is a poor use of a card, it’s just that there is better on offer. If you want to make the deck stronger, a playset of Tragic Slips should be at the very top of the list. They’re instant, cost only one mana, and while they need morbid to fire to be at their best, this deck has more than enough tools to deliver (even if it’s your own creature that’s served up). As a fellow Dark Ascension common, it makes you wonder why the Caresses made the cut and the Slips didn’t- power balance? An invitation to deckbuild?
Poor removal aside, the deck does deliver when it comes to adding more fodder to the battlefield. In addition to the Guard, Inquisitor, and Traveler above, you get to pick your poison here. Lingering Souls nets you a pair of 1/1 flyers, while flashback lets it net you another two. For one less mana, Gather the Townsfolk delivers- you get a pair of 1/1 Humans, and the fateful hour mechanic gives you quite a bit more in a pinch. Again as avote of confidence, Dark Sacrifice gives you three to play with. You also get an Avacyn’s Collar, which not only girds your creature but also gives it a Doomed Traveler-like effect.
The next three cards support the deck’s sacrifice theme by giving you more incentives to be ruthless with your army. Altar’s Reap– a toned-down Vivisection– gains you two cards at the expense of a creature (and a card), making this almost as much of a filter effect as a card draw one. You also get a single Demonmail Hauberk, giving a huge offensive (and minor defensive) boost for- again- the price of a creature. Lastly, just so you don’t have to endure loss alone, a pair of Night Terrors help you spread the love to your opponent.
And with that, we’ll prepare to take the deck into the field to see how it stacks up. Has it hit the right balance between predators, victims, and the rest? Only one way to find out, and we’ll be back in two days’ time to report. See you then!