Mirage: Night Terrors Review (Part 1 of 2)
When the decision was made to release the Mirage on Magic: the Gathering Online with a quartet of theme decks, Wizards aimed for a very creative approach. Two of the decks would be developed by the community, with a third being turned over to mothership writer Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, writer of the Building on a Budget column and devotee of the preconstructed deck. When those three were developed, Wizards R&D would look to create the fourth deck based on design space left unused by the first three. Today we’ll be looking at the mono-Black Night Terrors, a deck ultimately decided by Moldenhauer-Salazar, but with some interesting twists. It’s also a look under the hood at how Wizards approaches preconstruction.
Moldenhauer-Salazar can be said to be one of the “patron saints” of the Preconstructed Community, at least for us. He was writing about “meddling” theme decks well before we arrived, and doing it at the highest level. Although his final column was in 2007 (a deconstruction of the Theme Decks of Future Sight), his articles for the previous half a decade frequently delved into preconstructed territory. When it came time for Wizards to hand out deckbuilding duties for a Mirage deck, it was likely not a difficult decision to make.
As Moldenhauer-Salazar relates, he began by sketching out in broad strokes the identity of four decks he could build, leaving it up to the community to decide which one. The poll swung towards the mono-Black Spirit of the Night deck by a rather narrow margin, narrowly beating out a Red/White flanking deck (sound familiar?). With the basic identity now established, he went to R&D to get some guidance on the “rules” for preconstructed deck construction. In his article of 03 October, 2005, he relates the advice he was given:
- The deck should follow a theme. That’s why preconstructed decks are just as often called “theme decks.”
- Preconstructed decks are generally two colors. (Okay, I sort of violated this one… Remember Rat’s Nest, Ninjutsu, Snake’s Path, and Way of the Warrior, though? These are guidelines, people)
- One copy each of two distinct rares. Typically around thirteen uncommons. Typically twenty-four land. The rest are commons.
- Usually no more than three copies of any common. Uncommons usually have one or two copies each.
- When selecting cards think theme first, power second. The result should be a deck with a mix of power-levels in the cards but which fully explores the theme.
- Generally speaking, Frank [Gilson, his R&D contact] says that “the overall idea is to give players a ready-to-play deck that illustrates a bit about deckbuilding. It should be operating towards its theme, with both synergy and diversity amongst its cards, without straining (thus the usual two colors and rarity distribution).”
He mulled this over, worked up a decklist, and handed it over for the public consumption. The feedback was immediate in coming. “Almost every card I add (or ditch) today,” he wrote in the following week’s column, “is a direct result of at least one reader’s argument.” Although Night Terrors had yet to receive a name (that would be done by Wizards), the final decklist had come together through Moldenhauer-Salazar and the voice of the Magic community. It was complete and ready to go.
…or was it? It seems even then there was one last tweak to make beyond even Moldenhauer-Salazar’s calculations. As it happens, the final deck nicked off a Swamp and in its place added a third Charcoal Diamond. Beyond that, the Spirit of the Night was to be unleashed to the Magic-playing world online.
Walls of their Flesh
Night Terrors is a simple, straightforward midrage beatdown deck. Thanks to a reasonable mana supply and a single colour of cards, you should have little difficulty in deploying your fiends and Night Stalkers , and some trickery and evasion should help see them through. In addition, there’s a small combo represented here with the alsternate summoning cost of Spirit of the Night. As Moldenhauer-Salazar wrote, cheating out the massive Spirit is “something the deck can accomplish rather than something it aims to accomplish.” The deck, in other words, was built to stand on its own.
Acknowledging its need to go deep into the deck, Restless Dead’s early drops are focused on stalling for time. You have a pair of Restless Dead, a reskinned Drudge Skeletons, which are very good at blunting the offensive output of any attack not utilising trample. Similarly, a pair of Walls of Corpses can keep weenies at bay until something bigger comes along, at which point it can happily trade. Then there’s the Blighted Shaman. A curious and greedy 1/1 Cleric, the Shaman can turn surplus resources into combat bonuses. It doesn’t come cheaply, but used strategically it can help keep one of your creature alive through combat or a burn spell. Finally, for a touch of early threat you get a pair of Skulking Ghosts. An early predecessor of today’s crop of Illusions (ie Phantasmal Bear), the Ghost is 2 power in the air for two mana- a solid offering.
The three-drop block here is critical, just as it was in Ride Like the Wind. Instead of legions of flanking Knights, however, you get your Night Stalkers. A curious creature type (now errata’d to ‘Nightstalker’), each of them have rather modest special abilities that try and make you feel good about paying three mana for them. The Feral Shadow flies, while the Breathstealer has a very limited pump ability. The Urborg Panther (now a ‘Nightstalker Cat,’ by the way) is the most novel of the trio. Not only does it have the ability to destroy most any defender that tries to stand in its way, but it is the linchpin upon which your back-door strategy of bringing out the Spirit of the Night hinges. From a card economy perspective it’s a nightmarish scenario- trading three cards for one- and not one to be used carelessly. After all, a single removal spell can deal your board a massive blow. That said, the Spirit has a raft of special abilities atrtached to it, not least of which is haste. If your ground game is bogged down and your opponent heavily damaged, it can steal you the occasional game. The deck offers you three of each of the Night Stalkers.
Similar to the Urborg Panther in its danger to blockers is the Dread Specter. By modern standards at four mana you’d hope to get more out of a creature, but back in Mirage you might find this guy a more reasonable offer. His ability is similar to deathtouch, with a few subtle differences. For one, there’s the standard nonblack criteria, but by the same token he can kill a first striker even if it never lands a scratch. The Fetid Horror is your standard-issue Shade, giving full power/toughness pumping for Black mana. While shamed by modern incarnations of the species (see: Drifting Shade, a vastly superior model from M12), in a mono-Black deck he should put in a real shift for you. Lastly, we have a Gravebane Zombie, the ‘original undying.’ With 3 power it’s a solid body, and the recursion bit can help set up a minor combo with the Ravenous Vampire or Soulshriek.
The aforementioned Vampire clocks in as a five-drop, giving you some presence in the air. That said, it surely lives up to its name, and its demands for sacrifice are compulsory. Best to play with a fully-stocked board. Lastly, we have the big bad of the deck, the Spirit of the Night. A massive body (with an equally massive cost), the Spirit is a must-deal-with card for your opponent. Its first strike on offense combined with its trample mean that it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop. Although it will take some doing to get up the nine mana it takes to cast him, he should bring a swift and tidy end once you’ve managed to do so. Without the Night Stalker trick, this would be a fairly poor choice of card for the deck, but the alternate summons makes it a nice build-around card.
Life for Life
The noncreature support complement here is a smattering of different types of spells and effects. You have a decent amount of removal, though not quite as reliable as you might like to see in Black. Two Dark Banishings are your bread-and-butter kill-spell, while Drain Life offers some direct damage and reach across the table. Like the Fetid Horror, this is a card that thrives in mono-Black. Next there’s a Kaervek’s Hex, a board-wide effect that is doubly deadly against Green. Finally, you have a Withering Boon, a rare bit of countermagic in Black which acts as an Essence Scatter with a snip off your life total.
There are a couple of combat tricks in Soulshriek and Nocturnal Raid, both of which are excellent damage boosters. The Soulshriek is somewhat limited by the number of bodies you’ve salted away in the larder, while the Raid’s effectiveness is equally dependant upon how many you’ve kept in play- a dissonant note of non-synergy. Nevertheless, both can help deal a solid burst of damage to an unexpecting foe. For some hand disruption there are a pair of Stupors, one of the more fun discard spells printed not named Hymn to Tourach. This was brought back in Time Spiral as a ‘timeshifted’ card, but outside of Mirage it’s only ever seen reprinting in 1999’s 6th Edition.
Some graveyard hi-jinks come into play with a pair of Bone Harvests. These let you stock your library to draw a streasm of creatures in a row, and it replaces itself in your hand to boot. Note that this is the now-obsolete, early form of cantripping, before it went the way of the dodo and was replaced by immediate effects. Indeed, this card was given a proper functional update in Dark Ascension (Gravepurge). This category also provides us with the deck’s second rare, a Shallow Grave. This spell is quite conditional, since it specifies the top creature in your graveyard is the one that returns to play. Fortunately, it’s fairly cheap to cast, and there are a few things you can do with the reanimated creature after attacking to eke out a bit more value. One of these things involves the deck’s Phyrexian Vault, which lets you convert creatures to cards on an as-needed basis.
Lastly, we have the trio of Charcoal Diamonds, in addition to a whole stack of Swamps, just to help with some mana fixing and a touch of acceleration. Overall mono-Black is hard to say no to, and we’re eager to get this one sorted out in the field. When next we return to Mirage, we’ll have put it through its paces and be ready to issue a final verdict.