Mirage: Jungle Jam Review (Part 1 of 2)
We return from the dark plane of Innistrad to the sweltering, chattering jungles of Jamuraa for the second half of our Mirage coverage. As we’ve discussed, the Theme Decks of Mirage block were done well after the release of the actual set in 1996. Created for the Magic: the Gathering Online (MTGO) release some nine years later, Wizards took a unique approach in their construction.One of them would be designed by Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, columnist for the mothership’s “Building on a Budget” feature. Another would be the grand prize in a MTGO tournament. A third would be created by the community through a series of online polls on the mothership, and then Wizards R&D would step in and create the final one with whatever design space was still available.
The tournament for the rights to design a Mirage Theme Deck was held on 20 August, 2005. The winner was a 17-year-old Swede named Markus Pettersson. Like Moldenhauer-Salazar, he was given guidance by Wizards R&D member Frank Gilson, and together they developed a White/Green deck (with just a hint of Red), Jungle Jam. Said Pettersson,
I wanted to create a deck with Mythological Beats. Creature types like knights, elephants and clerics were boring. I started playing Magic because I liked the fantasy feeling in the game. I would like to share that feeling with new players. I’d like things like griffins, atogs, centaurs, and elves in my deck.
Pettersson certainly picked the right set for his aspiration, for Mirage is a set filled with a number of unusual creature types. To be certain the usual staples are well represented. You have things like Knights (eight cards), elephants (three), and clerics (five). Other fantasy tropes such as Dragons (seven) and Wizards (eleven) abound. But if a set lets you have a Brushwagg, you can be certain you’ll be able to find enough raw materials for something a little out of the ordinary, and if there’s one thing Mirage has plenty of, its Griffins. The set contains a full four representatives of the species, plus- and this is crucial- a Griffin lord. While Visions and Weatherlight would each add only one more Griffin, Visions did also contribute a tribal land to the mix in Griffin Canyon.
Jungle Jam indeed does have Atogs, Centaurs, and Elves (oh my!), but at its heart it remains a Griffin tribal deck, though one with plenty of other room for beasts both mystical and mundane.
Courage to the Righteous
At its heart, Jungle Jam is a straightforward creature beats deck, one with few interactions to get in the way of simply casting bodies and ordering them into the red zone. As evidenced by its mana curve above, it’s rather crowded at the four-drop slot, though you can begin to expect steadily laying creatures out as early as turn 2. As we’ll see, the deck does acknowledge this with a host of ramping effects, beginning with- but not limited to- the deck’s opening creatures.
A trio of Quirion Elves are a welcome sight here, giving you some added mana ramp as well as the ability to produce . Used by only one card in the deck, your options for attaining it are comparatively slender and these can assure your ability to play the Sawback Manticore when the time comes. You also have a singleton Benevolent Unicorn, a card designed to put a damper on direct damage (mainly Red burn). The card does nothing to you since you have no spells that cause damage, but against a Red deck it can provide real nuisance value.
More aggressive options begin to appear in our three-drop slot. A trio of Jolrael’s Centaurs give you an effective attacker thanks to their flanking ability. We saw this keyword used to great effect in the Ride Like the Wind deck, and combined with the Centaurs’ natural shroud they’re likely to be quite the thorn in an opponents side. Slightly more top-heavy are your Gibbering Hyenas. 3/2 beaters with a minor drawback (unable to block Black creatures), the Hyenas are another creature you’ll want to be sending into the red zone at every opportunity. Finally, we have a pair of Foratogs. Much less impressive than their brethren stats-wise, these clock in as rather feeble 1/2’s. However, their ability to devour your Forests to swell to potentially gargantuan proportions make them a win condition in and of themselves. Much like we saw in Mirrodin’s Sacrificial Bam deck, all-in sacrifice effects can win games all on their own- though not without considerable risk. One timely Dark Banishing and you’ve nearly Acid Rain’ed yourself for no real gain.
It’s the four drops, however, which really define the deck’s character. You have a pair of Nettletooth Djinns, 4/4’s for four mana with a niggling drawback which should seldom prevent you from playing them. Beyond those, however, everything else is up in the air. Literally, as it turns out- they’re all Griffins! Jungle Jam gives you two each of all four of Mirage’s non-legendary Griffins, though like the flank-Knights in Ride Like the Wind they all have a few things in common.
First, they all cost four mana, and give you a 2/2 body. Second, they’re all flying. Like the flank-Knights, though, each distinguishes itself from its fellows by its secondary ability. The Ekundu Griffin is the most straightforward of the lot. Coming equipped with first strike, it’s likely the ability that will most come in handy. The Teremko Griffin has another keyworded ability, one which has long since gone the way of the dodo: banding. Banding was an ability from the original Magic, which let you clump groups of creatures together in a “warband” which had to be blocked essentially as a single unit. This makes some sense abstractly, but was a rules headache for the game and one which soon found itself quietly disposed of. Even Time Spiral block- three sets of call-backs to old abilities, keywords, stories, and cards- refused to dust it off for one more go. Thanks to the Teremko Griffin, however, you get to experience a taste of the olde game.
The Unyaro and Mtenda Griffins‘ abilities are quite a bit more conditional. The Unyaro can sacrifice itself to stop you or another creature from getting hit with a Red direct damage spell, which means that at the end of the day if you’re not playing Red it’s one of the less appealing buys in the deck. The Mtenda, however, has an ability that can be useful no matter the colour of the opposition. Swooping into the graveyard, it picks up one of its fallen fellows and restores it to health in your hand. The problem here is that the ability essentially costs you five mana- one to activate and four to replay the Mtenda. That makes it highly situational, but the card advantage can make all the difference in a long, stalled-out game.
At the top of the creature curve we have our two closers. Zuberi, Golden Feather is the Griffin lord that pumps up all of your other Griffins. Even on his own, a 3/3 flyer is helpful, and any additional upside you can wring from him is just a bonus. The Sawback Manticore retains similar proportions (a 2/4 instead of a 3/3), but needs a steep mana investment in order to take wing. It compensates for that, however, with a nifty little trick- whenever it is engaged in combat, it can throw a Shock at an opposing blocking or attacking creature for only one mana.
Dread to the Idle
Green/White combat decks typically have a very straightforward package of noncreature support, and here Jungle Jam plays to type. You have the usual Giant Growth variant, in this case Armor of Thorns, which can function either as a combat trick or a creature aura, depending upon how you cast it. If auras are your thing, you also get a Ritual of Steel, which has the upside of replacing itself in your hand. Then there’s a trio of Rampant Growths help tackle that bloated, distended mana curve, and in tandem with the Quirion Elves should help make it run a bit more smoothly.
Combat decks can live and die on their removal suite, and Jungle Jam’s is a bit disappointing: a pair of Pacifisms and an Afterlife. On the upside, the high proportion of flying creatures does give the deck some added resilience against getting over-congested in the red zone, so this is less of a concern here as it might otherwise be. Still, you’ll have little answer to utility creatures which avoid dirtying their hands with combat- Afterlife is the only way this deck has to solve one of those types of nuisances. In addition, there’s the token Disenchant here as well.
The last few cards defy easy categorization. A Worldly Tutor ensures that you draw the right creature at the right time, while the Ivory Charm gives you the luxury of choice from amongst three relatively minor effects. Finally, Vitalizing Cascade is a simple and irredeemably straightforward lifegain option.
Despite the thematic variety that Pettersson aimed for, Jungle Jam still feels like a fairly generic Green/White combat deck. That said, the heavy Griffin contingent marks a departure from form, and we’ll see in the playtest if it is sufficient enough to make the deck something worth playing. We’ll take it into the arena, and report back in two days’ time!