Dark Ascension: Spiraling Doom Review (Part 1 of 2)
As we mentioned in our opening review of Gleeful Flames, multi-coloured Event Decks haven’t always fared so well in the court of public opinion. Because speed is such a potent weapon in their arsenal, to leave that on the table necessitates having effects powerful enough to compensate, and it dramatically ups the deck’s vulnerability to mana problems. Constructed multi-colour decks have a raft of dual lands to choose from in the environment, from Scars of Mirrodin’s “fast lands” (see: Seachrome Coast) to the enemy-coloured rares of Innistrad (see: Clifftop Retreat). It’s not that Event Decks are permitted from dipping into this treasure trove of mana-fixing, but rather that with a budget of only seven rares it can be hard to justify using those slots for land.
The first multi-colour Event Deck was Mirrodin Besieged’s Infect & Defile. It indeed recognised the need for mana fixing, and so included a pair of Drowned Catacombs. The problems of the deck lied elsewhere. For one thing, it had a limited threat density- only fifteen creatures- and most of these cost four mana or more. That’s not to say that a Phyrexian Vatmother hitting the table doesn’t require some attention, but pilots often would find that by the time they could get there, the game was already running away from them when facing a more powerful, constructed opponent. The longer the game goes on, the longer the person sitting across from you has to find their best cards- and when their best cards are a bit better than your own, you can see the asymmetry of time in action.
The mediocre Infect & Defile poisoned the well a bit, for the next few releases were strictly mono-coloured affairs. As we relayed in our last piece, that changed with Innistrad’s Deathfed. Not only was Deathfed a return to using more than one colour, it then upped the ante by asking for three. To be fair, Black was splashed in so that Forbidden Alchemy and Spider Spawning could be flashed back, but it was there all the same. This time, however, Wizards took a different tactical approach.
If Infect & Defile’s downfall was that it was a midrange deck with few attractive early-game options, Deathfed was to be a deck that had a scaling power curve. Cards like Boneyard Wurm, Splinterfright, and Gnaw to the Bone early in the game would yield a small effect, while later in the game that power level kept pace with the flow of the game (so long as you were successfully self-milling yourself). It also had a much more robust ramping package (1 Birds of Paradise, 4 Llanowar Elves, 3 Viridian Emissary, and 4 Mulch), to help reclaim some of that speed it lost in adding extra colours. Infect & Defile, by contrast, had only a playset of Plague Myr.
Deathfed was a solid deck (though, in our opinion, somewhat inferior in some ways to the Grave Power Intro Pack one set later), and showed how Wizards was looking to tackle the problems facing Event Deck efficacy. In short, if you’re going multi-colour, you need some sort of tactic beyond just beats that will keep you in the game. And without going multi-colour, the product line would almost certainly be slated for extinction, after consumers tired of “yet another mono-X aggro deck” being flogged for their hard-earned $24.95.
Today’s deck is the third of this august and noble line. Spiraling Doom again sees the pairing of Green and Black, though with the latter having a much-expanded role. The strategy this time involves the concept of the “toolbox deck.” For those unfamiliar with the term, toolbox decks are a rather disctinctive type of build which looks to trade consistency for versatility. When you think of a toolbox, you think of a metal chest with a hammer, screwdriver, wrench, and so forth- each tool different and for a specific purpose. Toolbox decks follow much the same concept, with singleton cards included to answer a certain problem. Frequently these decks employ creatures with enters-the-battlefield effects as well as spells, so that it can have the widest possible range of solutions to whatever it might find on the battlefield.
The trade-off, as mentioned above, is in consistency. With so many one-card “answers” in a deck, how can you be sure you’ll draw the right one at the right time? Top-decking your anti-artifact creature won’t do when it was the creature-killing one you need to clinch the game, and with so many different cards to choose from you can hardly be expected to rely upon your once-per-turn draw to get you what you need, when you need it. What pulls a toolbox deck together are its “tutors,” effects that let you search your library for a card. Land those, and suddenly your deck of cards becomes like a Swiss Army Knife, capable of giving you just the right tool right when you want it. Whether the toolbox presented by Spiraling Doom is sufficient enough to get the job done in the current Standard environment remains to be seen, but let’s crack the deck open and see what’s lying about in amongst the hammers and the wrenches.
Drawn by Power
Although Spiraling Doom packs in a pair of Diabolic Tutors as extra insurance, the tutoring effect that powers the deck’s toolbox engine is the Birthing Pod. This four-mana artifact from New Phyrexia lets you begin to trade up creatures in a sort of Jacob’s Ladder effect, each getting sacrificed to bring out one with a slightly higher converted mana cost. This means that virtually all of your toolbox will be comprised of creatures with special effects, so bear that in mind as we begin to dissect the mana curve.
In the opening slot, we find the deck’s first rare card, Hex Parasite. Another New Phyrexia card, the Parasite can devour counters from any permanent to fuel a small power boost. Typically, the Parasite has drawn its paycheck as a way to kill off enemy planeswalkers, and it fulfills that role well enough here. However, the most recent set has given the humble Parasite a whole new raison d’etre: a combo with undying. If the deck’s engine requires creature sacrifice, what better way to mitigate the coast than to include creatures that actually come baco stronger when sacrificed? And with the Hex Parasite, you can devour their +1/+1 counter, letting unding bring them back again (and again and again). This little combo can yield tremendous value and card economy over the course of a game, and you’ll seldom feel bad to draw the Parasite.
Filling out the one-drops are a playset of Young Wolves. A simple, one-mana 1/1 with undying, they can be used for some early damage before being sacrificed as fodder to the Pod to start moving up the chain. And as it happens, the deck’s two-drops are some very choice selections indeed.
First amongst these is the Perilous Myr. This is another example of a card, solid enough on its own, that like the Hex Parasite gains a new level of power in the right environment. No longer will you need to wait for an enemy creature to pop it, you can sacrifice the Myr to the Pod at your leisure and send that 2 damage right where it most needs to go. Because the Pod enables sacrifice, we’ll find that a lot of the tools in the kit can take advantage of exits-the-battlefield triggers just as easily as enters-the-battlefield ones. Like the Myr, the Viridian Emissary has a useful ability that triggers when it croaks, helping to cement your manabase (or fix it if it’s dodgy).
Finally in the two-drops, we find another of your more aggressive options in a full playset of Strangleroot Geists. An aggressively-minded 2/1 undying creature, they check off nearly every box you’d want here for this deck. They’re good attackers that get even better, plus their undying helps feed your tutoring engine at minimal cost (virtually none with the Hex Parasite in play). Because you’re going to be looking to take advantage of enters- and exits-the-battlefield effects, you’re often going to have a fairly ragtag army of whatever you happened to need in the moment. The Geists will be one of your more consistent shock troops.
Moving to the next rung of the ladder, we find a trio of three-drops at your disposal. Need to smash an opponent’s artifact? Bring up your Viridian Corrupter. Want a few more bodies on the battlefield? Go for the Wakedancer, whose morbid is automatically triggered by the act of sacrificing something to the Birthing Pod in the first place. Don’t need either, but want a three-drop out so you can keep moving up the ladder? No problem, grab the Phyrexian Rager and an extra card to boot.
Now in the four-drop range, we find a most valuable inclusion here in the Solemn Simulacrum. Although a humble 2/2 body, the Simulacrum offers powerful card advantage by giving you extra resources across its life cycle- a basic land when it’s born, a fresh card when it dies. Your other option here is the potent Skinrender, a built-in two-for-one attached to a very solid 3/3 body. Knowing you’ll want access to several of these, the deck gives you three of them. Just the thing to solve some nuisance creature your opponent is using to make things difficult for you.
With plenty of rungs to go, we find our selections at the top begin to narrow a bit, as there will be plenty of times you’ll want to tutor up a cheaper creature for a specific effect rather than working one line all the way up the chain (2 to 3 to 4 to 5, etc). The Stingerfling Spider kicks off the five-drops, and it’s here to solve a flying threat. The Morkrut Banshee is a stronger Skinrender here, as her usual drawback- having to rely upon a morbid trigger- is removed by the use of the Pod. Need instead to solve a pesky artifact, enchantment, or land? Call up the Acidic Slime. And much as the Phyrexian Rager offered you a free card if you didn’t happen to need a particular solution at the moment, the Bloodgift Demon offers you card advantage attached to a very menacing 5/4 evasive body. Most creatures in the deck thus far have been relatively trifling affairs- few opponents have cause to worry when your four-drop is a 2/2. Even the 4/4 Banshee can be contained on the ground. The Demon is the first creature so far that’s a genuine must-answer offensive threat. Use it wisely.
Finally, there’s a single six-drop and seven-drop waiting for you if you’ve successfully employed your Birthing Pod this far up the ladder. The Brutalizer Exarch comes with a couple of built-in options, either tutoring you up a creature (sound familiar yet?), or solving an opponent’s noncreature threat (such as a planeswalker). Lastly, the Myr Battlesphere brings a small host of friends along with it, and also is a strong offensive option that needs to be solved by your opponent in fairly short order. Note too that the deck has now come full circle. Those 1/1 Myr tokens the Battlesphere bring along? Their CMC is 0, meaning you can now tutor up a one-drop with the Birthing Pod and start all over again.
Fueled by Conquest
As you might expect, the preponderance of creatures means that the deck is a little less robust with its noncreature support. Right off the bat we find the pair of Birthing Pods that drive the deck’s combo engine. There’s also a single Mortarpod here as insurance in case you can’t find a Birthing Pod but still need to trigger a few leaves-the-battlefield effects. As the deck’s insert points out, it’s also good for turning an undying creature into a snap-defender after it’s attacked. Simply pop it to the Mortarpod for the 1 damage, then it returns untapped and ready to defend with a +1/+1 counter.
The final set of spells are your Diabolic Tutors (mentioned above) and a trio of Doom Blades. The latter is a somewhat depressing choice. While there’s no doubting the power of the Blade, they seem to be the de facto removal option for preconstructed Magic. They’re not a bad choice, but they are dead in your hand against a Black deck, and somewhat restricted by any deck with Black in it. Given the frequency with which creatures will be dying here thanks to the Birthing Pod, we’d have preferred to see some Tragic Slips here instead.
In addition to the suite of basic lands, you do get a couple of extra options in some nonbasics. In case your manabase needs some help evening out there’s a pair of Evolving Wilds included in the deck. You also get a rare land in the form of a Grim Backwoods. The Backwoods offer another way to knock off one of your own creatures, and while the cost (four mana) is a bit steep it does have the significant benefit of netting you a card.
Kill the Weak
The deck’s sideboard gives you an additional range of options to better tailor the deck to what your opponent is trying to do. Spiraling Doom already takes most of its cues from your opponent’s plays, but that isn’t to say that there’s no room for improvement. Up against an opponent playing for the long game? Try gutting their hand a bit with a Distress or Despise. Too many counters for your liking, or facing down too much removal? Autumn’s Veils can be boarded in to make sure you don’t lose your Birthing Pods before they have a chance to start working. There’s also a Beast Within and Dismember to help solve problems that might threaten to overwhelm your deck (the Beast Within in particular is a fine option against an opposing planeswalker).
The rest of the sideboard is devoted to tinkering with your toolbox. A Myr Sire gives you extra fodder for your Birthing Pod, and gives you an early 0-CMC token to help find a Hex Parasite or Young Wolf as needed. Another Wakedancer offers a two-for-one for bodies on the battlefield, and the Gravedigger lets you fish in your graveyard to bring something back. Also available for retrieval service is the Entomber Exarch, which can alternately strike at your opponent’s hand. Finally, if you’re up against troubling equipment like the Swords or, recently, a Batterskull, the Acid Web Spider can handle that for you nicely.
All told, this looks like another fun entry in the preconstructed annals. So much of preconstruced Magic involves straightforward creature combat, and decks like this are a much-needed breath of fresh air. We can’t wait to play it, and we’ll begin our playtesting analysis in two days’ time!