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April 1, 2012

1

Visions: Savage Stompdown Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

It’s our final visit to Visions, which means that we’ll soon be taking our leave of the world of Menagerie. As we’ve covered before, both Mirage and Visions were initially concepted as a single set of cards from a faction of Magic’s original playtesting groups. As it was refined with an eye towards development and release, it then was broken down into two sets. It was at this time that Wizards established the “block structure” of one large set followed by two smaller ones, and we would soon find Weatherlight grafted on to complete the Mirage block.

Thus far we’ve looked at the origins of Mirage and Visions in Menagerie, and how the set was given an African flavour only towards the relative end of development, for work on it had been underway for quite some time before. Once the setting had been decided, it then fell upon the creative minds at Wizards to fill in that world, and give it a backstory. Soon, the tale of the conflict between Teferi and Kaervek came to be.

The tale begins innocently enough, a story of a quarrel over natural resources. Three nations of Jamuraa are central to the telling. First you have Zhalfir, a regional superpower, and its rival neighbour Suq’Ata, a nation of intrigue and mercantilism. The squabble centers on Femeref, a onetime province of Zhalfir that had peacefully seceded as a result of a religious schism and founded its own nation. As Femeref began to proper as a result of gold deposits discovered within its territory, it’s two much larger neighbours began to take notice.

Suq’Ata responded by annexting Zhalfirin territory that bordered Femeref, hoping to mine part of the same mountain range where the Femeref had struck gold. Rather than presenting a unified face to the threat, the Zhalfirin King was indecisive on how to respond, and this indecisiveness stressed fault lines present within Zhalfirin society itself. Like brittle crystal Zhalfir cracked, splintering into a handful of smaller, newly-independent states. Into this roiling cauldron stepped the planeswalker Teferi, who had held a position in the Zhalfirin royal court as a mage of considerable might and renown. Although gone for centuries exploring the multiverse, Teferi’s return immediately brought a sense of calm to the squabbling states, though it did nothing to solve the underlying casus belli.

Teferi soon tired of the endless jockeying for power and position between the fractious regional players, and soon quit to a small, remote island to continue research into magical summoning. His main focus of exploration involved a process he called phasing, or slipping creatures in and out of the time stream. It was unstable going, for he was as a blind man in an empty field, absent any sense of direction. As his knowledge grew, so did his understanding of the fragility of the time stream and- to his horror- he found that the clumsy, fumbling experiments had actually damaged that which he had wished to study. Realising that the temporal damage he had inflicted on the plane could cause time itself to unravel, he determined that only a massive release of magical energy could heal the rift and prevent catastrophe. Teferi summoned every bit of power he could muster, collecting it deep within himself to release in a singular moment. When he was ready, he let it go in a massive burst- and in that instant, he- and the entire island- disappeared.

Such a surge of mystical power did not go unnoticed. Three different mages arrived, looking to investigate the cause of the disturbance. Mangara of the Corondor, Jolrael, and Kaervek of the Burning Isles. Although they initially allied in common cause, Kaervek coveted dominion over the bickering nations of Jamuraa, and seethed as Mangara used his influence and diplomacy to bring peace to the troubled region. “Mangara’s Harmony” ushered in a century of enlightenment and peaceful coexistence, but it was not to last.

Slowly and patiently, Kaervek began to destabilise the region. He manipulated and schemed, stirring up border skirmishes and trade wars, always keeping the prospect of violent confrontation from becoming too distant a memory. He managed to turn Jolrael to his cause, and through a proxy army of summoned spirits and beasts, began to inject fear, uncertainty, and doubt amongst the nations of Jamuraa. Conflicts once peacefully resolved soon became arguments, arguments became aggression, and aggression lead to violence. Staying ever behind the scenes, Kaervek had manipulated noble and common alike, and the continent became a tinderbox of tension, a kindling of old prejudices and grudges thought long buried, waiting for something to set it alight. In such an environment, it was only a matter of when, not if.

Once relationships between the Jamuraan nations had deteriorated outside of even Managara’s ability to resolve, Kaervek and Jolrael struck. The unwitting Mangara was invited to a meeting of the three in the Mwonvuli Delta, a meeting from which he never returned. And now with the last great obstacle to war having disappeared, the steady cadence of drums are heard emanating through the jungles. The triangles of war are being struck… and Kaervek couldn’t be more delighted.

Cruelty Arises from Opportunity

With a name like Savage Stompdown, this deck couldn’t be anything else other than Green/Red. Jolrael, the nature-focused mage lured to Kaervek’s side, had as her thrall the beasts and creatures of the jungles and forests, as well as the Viashino lizard-folk and the great Dragons of the mountains. This deck harnesses the power of all of these, looking to trample your opponent underfoot and crush the very life out of them under a thunderous roar.

The first thing we notice when regarding the deck’s curve is the boat-anchor four-drop slot, boasting a heavy concentration of force. Although this is a bit too much of a good thing, base-Green stompy decks have a bit more tolerance for unwieldy mana curves thanks to the amount of ramp that Green bring to the table. The idea is a simple one- sure, my spells cost more because my creatures are bigger, but I’ll be bringing them out as quickly as you’ll be bringing out your smaller ones.

Naturally, the earlier drop slots are relatively uninhabited to make room for the larger mid-to-late-game presence. In the opening curve we find a singleton copy of a Granger Guildmage. Like any good Guildmage, the Granger packs in a couple of activated abilities. It can ping for Red mana (though you get some immediate feedback from the act), or for White you can give a creature first strike. Don’t let the absence of Plains fool you, you do have a small window of opportunity to get ahold of White mana.

This comes in the form of the pair of Quirion Elves, the lone occupants of the deck’s two-drop slot. The Elves comprise the entirety of your mana-ramping package, a rather horrifying prospect. This is a bit baffling given the viable options available in the environment: Rampant Growth, Summer Bloom, a third Quirion Elves or even Wall of Roots. Still, there’s some security in knowing that the Mirage environment runs a bit slow (Visions less so than Mirage), so that should give you some time to develop your resources. Beggars can’t be choosers!

Viashivan Dragon

Your variety begins to improve in the three-drops as we find a couple of creature options that are equally adept on both offense anddefense. The Raging Gorilla is a curious case. It’s a 2/3 that inflates to massive size if it happens to block or be blocked. Unfortunately, this will almost always end up in a trade, which means that the Gorilla is slightly better on defense than offense if for no other reason than that you give your opponent the luxury of choice when swinging in. If they have a spare 1/1 laying about, that’s a trade almost certainly not in your favour. Of course, if your opponent is only playing creatures midsize and up, then you might find the Gorilla getting through a few times.

The other option here is the Jungle Troll, a pair of them. Being able to  regenerate with either of your deck’s colours means that the Troll will have some very obnoxious staying power, and can be a throw-in on any attack with virtual impunity. Should your back be against the wall, it also makes a superb defender while you buy time to unload your threat package.

Another solid offensive/defensive option is the Locust Swarm, our first creature in the bloated four-drop class. A Green flying creature doesn’t come along often, and this one not only regenerates, but it can also untap to give you a useful blocker. It’s not quite vigilance, but the mana investment is offset by the fact that regernation taps your creature, so if your Swarm dies on the attack they still can be useful against the counterattack.

Your air force is further augmented by a pair of Drakes, the Spitting and the Kyscu. These bear a similarity to the Nightstalkers of the Night Terrors deck, in that they enable the deck’s top beater to come into play without having to be cast. There’s a bit of in-joke humour with these, given that Red and Green have long been the colours which get some of the most inefficient flying creatures. Both of these Drakes are inhabitants of the Kyscu mountain range, with “Kyscu” selected as it is an anagram for “sucky.” That should tell you about what you need to know about these two cards, each of which costs four mana and is a 2/2. If you’re seeing a making do with what you have” subtheme emerging in this deck, you’re far from alone.

Bridging the gap between the air force and the ground troops is the Giant Caterpillar. By default it’s a 3/3, but it can be sacrificed to turn into a 1/1 Butterfly. Since this can be done at any time, it makes for a great counter to removal, and while a 1/1 flyer is breaking no records, it’s still good to have the option to finish off a crippled opponent if the ground game has become mired in congestion. Beyond that, the rest of the cards in this slot are reasonably efficient ground-based ones. The Ekundu Cyclops is a 3/4 for four mana, about what you’d expect for Red alongside a minor drawback. In this case, the Cyclops is a shameless tag-along, and no attack can be untertaken without his company. On a smaller creature this would be a much less pleasant experience, but a 3/4 body means you’ll probably be wanting to attack with him anyway. This is a clever way to encourage precisely that.

The last two cards are right out of the jungle, the Bull Elephant and King Cheetah. The Elephant is a four-mana 4/4, and in that era that means you have to expect a drawback. Eventually as the power of creatures relative to their cost inched up this pendulum would soon swing the other way (see Onslaught’s all-upside Ravenous Baloth up to the even-more-upside Obstinate Baloth), but for now we have to settle for a 4/4 that sets back your manabase a turn or two. Finally, you get King Cheetah, a simple 3/2 with flash.

Moving now to the top-end closers, we find a surprisingly efficient option in the Hulking Cyclops– a five-mana 5/5 with a drawback that is generally only relevant if your deck is failing to do its job properly (blocking should be the other player’s problem). That will be especially so with the Viashivan Dragon, one of the deck’s two rares. In addition to being summonable through the Drake combo, this six-mana 4/4 will be very difficult to stop if you’re able to untap with it in play, especially if you have a few Forests laying about. For the very last creature, the Crash of Rhinos, you’ll need all those Forests and often more as it costs eight mana. That said, getting an 8/4 trampling creature on the board puts your opponent on a very short clock if they can’t come up with an answer in time.

Nothing Beats Rock

The noncreature support for the deck falls into the traditional categories with a few unexpected twists. Since Savage Stompdown is a combat deck, removal is crucial to help keep the red zone clear. There haven’t been many Green cards which offer direct damage, but you get a pair of them here in the form of Unyaro Bee Sting. Sure it’s an overpriced, slower Shock, but it’s a good inclusion to help answer smaller nuisance creatures, and fits well in the deck. Green also gives you a Creeping Mold, something a bit more traditionally on-colour.

Speaking of traditional, there are also some Red X-spells on offer here, both of them instants. Rock Slide only damages creatures, but on the upside it is damage that can be divided however you wish, offering the prospect of a real blowout if your opponent puts a lot of offensive pressure on the board. In addition to two of those, you also get a Volcanic Geyser. A single-target spell, the Geyser’s main differentiation here is that it can also damage players, making it the perfect way to finish off a wounded opponent.

Unyaro Bee Sting

Combat tricks are also de rigeur for this kind of deck, and you have recourse to a trio of Feral Instincts. Not as strong as Armor of Thorns, it nevertheless is useful in that it’s a cheap spell that replaces itself in your hand. The last three cards defy easy classification, and one of them most decidedly isn’t cheap. Natural Order, the deck’s other rare card, is nudging up on $30 at the time of this writing. Price aside, it is a brutally effective card that can cheat out a beating as early as turn 3 if you’ve managed to land a Quirion Elves. No other card in the deck is as capable as this one as turning a game on its axis and stealing a win out of nowhere.

The deck’s final two cards are your Charms, both Emerald and Hearth. These continue the Charm cycle established in Mirage of taking a trio of lesser effects and putting them on one card. The Emerald can give you a surprise blocker, destroy a non-Aura enchantment, or cause a creature to lose flying until end of turn (great for ambushing them when they attack). The Hearth, on the other hand, destroys an artifact creature, makes a weenie unblockable, or gives your side a combat boost on offense. Its this latter ability that will prove most useful, as the deck lacks any “saboteur” cards which will make connecting with a weenie creature worth spending a card on.

Overall, we have serious misgivings about the deck’s mana curve, but it’s hard to say given the pace of the environment how significant an impact that will have. To find out, we’ll be putting the deck through its paces, and will return to render a final verdict!

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