Weatherlight: Dead and Alive Review (Part 1 of 2)
As we continue our coverage of Project Mirage Block and the theme decks of Weatherlight, it’s worth noting that we’re sandwiched right in the very heart of Innistrad block, a set which can look at a deck like Dead and Alive and recognise a sort of descent from lineage. Although the block veers off in a different direction with the onset of Avacyn Restored, which sees the triumph of goodness and light over the darker and more sinister entities of the benighted plane, both Innistrad proper as well as Dark Ascension played heavily in the graveyard as source of mechanical identity.
In our reviews of Innistrad, we noted where Mark Rosewater had referred to the set as a sort of reboot of 2001’s Odyssey, a set which similarly mucked about in the graveyard with mechanics like flashback and threshold. The problem, as Rosewater had defined it, was that the mechanics and the set didn’t really mesh all that well together from a flavourful perspective. Sure the graveyard mattered to the gameplay, but there wasn’t any thematic sense of why in the same way where land, for example, matters very much to Zendikar. It was something of an opportunity missed, he felt, and one that could be returned to at some point in the future to base a horror-themed block around.
As crucial a role as Odyssey has played in the formation of a resonant, graveyard-themed set, however, it cannot lay claim to being the first “graveyard matters” set. That honour would be claimed four years prior, with 1997’s Weatherlight.
The First Wave: Recovery
From the game’s very beginnings, the designers have recognised the design potential of what might otherwise be known as a “discard pile.” By calling it a “graveyard,” however, they opened it up to being a center of gameplay rather than just a place that you stuck your cards when they had finished affecting the game. The concept of bringing the dead back to life had immediate resonance for three of the colours, who all did something similar in their own way. Black had Raise Dead and Animate Dead, with the artistic connotation being that you were bringing something back through necromancy. For Green, you instead regrew it, and White brought it full back to life with Resurrection. Interestingly, of the three only Raise Dead saw heavy reprinting, while the others faded away to be replaced with later, more balanced or colour-appropriate effects. These were fairly intuitive and straightforward, and comprised almost all of Alpha’s graveyard-focused cards, the exception being a rare card, Nether Shadow.
The Second Wave: Reference
From these humble beginnings, growth in that direction was slow. Magic’s first expansion, 1993’s Arabian Nights, had but a single card that even mentioned graveyards, and that was an ante card (Jeweled Bird). The next set, Antiquities, was a little more generous, but again most of the effects that interacted with the graveyard were simply methods of getting things out of them once they had been placed there (see: Argivian Archaeologist, Drafna’s Restoration). It’s an interesting sign of the times that originally, Feldon’s Cane wasn’t employed as an offensive weapon, but rather simply a way to get a second lease on life for your prize cards. It wasn’t until Legends that we saw a card with an active gameplay link to the contents of your graveyard, the Wall of Tombstones, though it was unique in that regard- the other graveyard-focused cards were variations on previous themes. This design track would later feature the famed Lhurgoyf from Ice Age, itself the predecessor of the very popular Tarmogoyf in Future Sight.
The Third Wave: Resource
The next leap in design came with 1994’s The Dark, the first set that had a dedicated theme of “graveyard as resource.” Cards like Eater of the Dead, Frankenstein’s Monster, Grave Robbers, and Necropolis grew stronger by drawing upon what you’d managed to put into your graveyard, and for the first time it made graveyard interaction as a tactical choice available to players, as well as an enduring way to thwart it (Tormod’s Crypt). Another “graveyard as resource” card made into the next set, Fallen Empires, with Night Soil.
Ice Age and Alliances built upon these categories of mechanical interaction. The Nether Shadow made its triumphant return in the hyper-aggressive Ashen Ghoul, while the aforementioned Lhurgoyf, Songs of the Damned, Spoils of Evil, and Spoils of War revealed a minor mechanical subtheme that cared about the quantity of cards in the graveyard. The follow-up set, Homelands, had a minor contribution, but one that cut both directions: graveyard-as-resource (Drudge Spell) as well as resource denial (Headstone). Alliances expanded upon the Ashen Ghoul theme where cards had special abilities depending upon what was above them in the graveyard (see: Death Spark, Krovikan Horror). And while Mirage had its own contribution with cards like Forbidden Crypt and Hammer of Bogardan, and Visions gave us offerings like Necrosavant and Necromancy, to this point the graveyard had been a small but steadily-developing presence in the game.
That changed with Weatherlight, the first full-fledged “graveyard matters” set. Weatherlight hit upon every facet of design and development that had come before it. All three waves of design that had focused on the discard pile were expanded upon here. The first wave- graveyard recursion- was given new toys to play with such as Argivian Find and Relearn. The second wave, cards which based their power level upon the contents of your graveyard, found representation in Nature’s Resurgence and Paradigm Shift. The third wave, cards which actually used the graveyard like a resource, was itself the most expanded. Necratog, Nature’s Kiss, Haunting Misery, and Alms all fed off of it. You were no longer counting cards in it, now you hald plenty of tools to cash them in. Not content just to pave the trail blazed before it, Weatherlight left its own mark on the strategy, providing the first card that did nothing but pad the graveyard: Buried Alive.
Though later sets would greatly expand the power of the graveyard to affect gameplay, Weatherlight was the first to make it a central focus of the set, even if it was somewhat of a fringe strategy. As we’ve seen, it build upon the three waves of design and development that had come in the sets before it, all of which culminates in the deck we’re looking at today, Dead and Alive.
No Reflection, No Light
Despite Dead and Alive’s somewhat artificial Theme Deck status as a deck that was created well after its set was released (made as it was for Magic: the Gathering Online), it would be some sets yet before we began seeing actual recursion strategies. The modern recursion deck looks to drop something fat and unpleasant into the graveyard, then cheat it out early. That’s not to say that it’s not possible here, but as we’ll see the mechanics of the deck don’t really push in that direction.
Instead, Dead and Alive adopts a more generalist approach, using the graveyard as additional resource within a more conventional arsenal of beaters and support cards. It has a small one-drop presence, consisting of a pair of Sewer Rats and a Circling Vultures. The Rats- a card from Mirage- are simple limited-pump creatures that exact a rather steep toll. Although of limited use, it does give you some opportunity to force an early trade and keep the board manageable. Circling Vultures, on the other hand, are a card you won’t want to see early despite their casting cost given that you need your other resource (the graveyard) to be well-stocked before deploying. Still, for all that it’s a 3/2 flier, and it has an unusual extra ability in that it can be discarded at-will, to help feed your other graveyard-focused creatures in a pinch.
The deck’s real aggression begins to take shape in its two-drops. The Fallen Askari is a cut-rate, no-frills version of the flank-Knights which populate Mirage block. With a blocking restriction and no second special ability, the Askari is still a solid turn-2 play and the deck gives you a pair of them. Next up is the Barrow Ghoul, a larger but grounded version of the Vultures. Like the Vultures, they require a steady diet of creature cards exiled from your graveyard to keep them afloat, but on the other hand as a 4/4 they’re one of your deck’s largest creatures. In this sense, the mana cost is a little misleading- it’s difficult to think of any circumstances by which this would be an attractive turn-2 play.
Next we find some of your air force in the form of a pair of Fledgling Djinn and a Skulking Ghost. Both cards offer you evasive 2-power bodies with a slight drawback. The Djinn has the oft-seen Djinn drawback of damage every upkeep (see: Juzam Djinn, Nettletooth Djinn), a small price to pay if you’re managing to deal twice that against your opponent each turn. The Ghost is one we’ve seen before in earlier Theme Decks, and has the same fragility as the modern Illusion (see: Phantasmal Bear). Like the Djinn, it’s well worth the weakness, and these will be cards you’ll frequently be happy to draw.
Moving on to the three-drops, we find this to be the most creature-laden of the curve. You have plenty of options here, beginning with the 4/4 Hidden Horror. The Horror is a superb card for reanimator decks, because it gives you another outlet you get your fat creatures into the graveyard for easy recursion. Here it’s solid enough, though its benefit is a bit less clear-cut given that most of the deck’s creatures are fairly middle-of-the-road in terms of size and impact. It will be something to keep an eye on as the deck unfolds.
For our next creature here we find the somewhat defensive-minded and underwhelming Mischievous Poltergeist. The best thing that can be said about the card is that it’s evasive, but unless the sky lanes are wide open this isn’t usually something you’ll want to send in on the attack. Rather, cards like this tend to be at their most useful on defense, where it can in effect reduce the incoming damage from your opponent’s largest (non-trampling) attacker to 1 each turn. Given that decks like Dead and Alive tend to adopt a more aggressive approach this seems a bit of a misfit, but depending on your draw it may take a few turns to sculpt the graveyard into what you need it to be. In that case, the luxury of a little extra time will come in handy though in the final analysis, it’s a bit too situational to be considered a quality inclusion. There are just too many cards here you’d rather draw than this clunker.
Case in point: Necratog. This is one of the central creatures to the deck’s wartime aims, which is to stockpile cards in your graveyard and then turn them to beneficial effect. By itself the Necratog is a feeble play for its three mana, but with even a couple of creatures in your graveyard it can become very threatening very quickly. Often just the threat of what it can do will be enough for your opponent to let it pass each turn on the attack, and the deck gives you three of them to work with. Alternately, instead of pumping the Necratog, you can use those tasty corpses to keep your Zombie Scavengers up. 3 power with regeneration is nothing to sneer at, and the fact that it costs no mana- just a creature card in your graveyard- means you won’t have to worry about having to risk tapping out to play a card with the Scavengers in play.
Finally, you also get a trio of Crypt Rats. These are your great board-sweepers, being in essence a one-shot Pestilence on a stick. When using an effect that hits both sides of the table, the trick is to turn the apparent drawback to your advantage. Your opponent will not likely have much redress for when you sweep the board with the Rats, but any collateral damage you cause to your own board (including the Rats themselves) can be used to power up your other cards. In addition you might find that after being subjected to the Rats for the first time, your opponent may hold back a creature or two in their hand rather than going all out. Either way, these Rats are a particularly insidious inclusion.
For four-drops, Dead and Alive gives you two each of the Nekrataal and Shadow Rider. The Nekrataal is a familiar face from Visions, and a must-include for most any Black deck of the era. An almost-guaranteeed two-for-one, the Nekrataal was especially pernicious thanks to its first strike. It wasn’t just a barely-useful body attached to a kill spell, but rather it was an immediately-relevant beater in its own right. Of course, all the first strike in the world won’t do much against a 3-toughness creature, so the deck gives a bit more muscle in the form of the Shadow Riders. 3/3 flankers for four mana isn’t a bad deal, especially in Black, and they should pose a consistent offensive threat.
When even those don’t quite get the job done, however, you can alway fall back on your top-of-curve closer, Morinfen. Morinfen, fraternal twin of Gallowbraid and one of the deck’s two rares, carries with him a cumulative upkeep that will grow increasingly unpleasant. That said, he’s still a 5/4 flier, and it shouldn’t take too many turns of turning him sideways for you to attain the desired effect.
Torn into Thin Darkling Strips
The noncreature support complement of Dead and Alive falls rather neatly into three distinct groups: removal, recursion, and everything else. The removal package is respectable here, with no less than six cards comprising it. Your bread and butter kill spell is Dark Banishing, and you have a pair of them here. Direct damage (plus lifegain) comes in the form of twin Spinning Darknesses, which ensure you’re not entirely handicapped against a fellow Black mage. In addition, though its alternative casting cost is a bit parasitic for the deck (you may sometimes find your cards competing for resources), being able to potentially cast it while tapped out evens the scales somewhat. Finally, for some full-bore reach across the table you get a pair of Drain Lifes, one of the game’s classic Black sorceries.
You have to ways of recurring any creatures that might have fallen into your graveyard- either through returning them to your hand or returning them to play. Visions’ Necromancy is firmly in the latter camp, and has the added perk of being able to be cast as an instant (though you lose the creature at the end of the turn). As an enchantment, Strands of Night has a habit of sticking around, and although its cost is a bit steep, there is no restriction on when you can use it. Bringing in an extra body at the end of your opponent’s turn to be ready to swing on yours is what the card was made to do, though as a permanent any reasonably competent opponent should at least be able to see the potential lines of play, depending upon what you have in the graveyard. Finally, Shattered Crypt is recursion of the first type, able to bring any number of creature cards back from your graveyard to hand, ready to be recast.
In the last category we find some enablers that defy easy classification, though they have the ability to feed your deck’s strategies A pair of Buried Alives help keep your graveyard topped up, and can even set up a reanimation strategy if you happen to be holding a recursion spell and drop a fatty into the boneyard. They also feed your other creatures that need carrion to thrive, like the Circling Vultures or Necratog. Finally, Infernal Tribute– the deck’s other rare card- lets you cash in any card for another- just the ticket when that Barrow Ghoul runs out of scraps in the midden, or when Morinfen has outlived his welcome on your life total.
To see how the deck functions in the field, we’ll be pitting Dead and Alive against some competition, and will report back in two days’ time to let you know how it held up!