Avacyn Restored: Bound by Strength Review (Part 1 of 2)
In 2007, Magic players long accustomed to the now-traditional three-set block were in for a surprise. Indeed, going back to 1996’s Mirage Wizards had settled on a formula of an annual cycle of blocks consisting of a large set in the Autumn followed by two smaller sets, a fashion which endured all of eleven years. By that point, many players had never known a Magic that was any different, a game made up of a string of unconnected, self-contained expansions. And so when Lorwyn arrived, it was something novel and unusual- a block made up of only two halves, itself connected to a subsequent block made up of two halves.
To be fair, “half” is something of a misnomer- it was a divided set, but as usual the first set was the larger. Still, Lorwyn/Morningtide and the following Shadowmoor/Eventide showed what could result when Wizards lent itself the flexibility to design beyond “the way things are done” and be willing to not just innovate with cards, but with the very release schedule itself. In a funny twist of fate, we’d see both of these notions intersect with Innistrad- the classic one-shot expansion fused with the dual-set block.
Indeed, Innistrad in its present form wasn’t meant to be. Initially, the block of “Shake/Rattle/Roll” (the design code-names) was going to be two different blocks- one of a large set followed by a small expansion (Shake/Rattle), and then a one-shot “block” of a single large set, Roll. As Mark Rosewater has disclosed on the mothership, Roll being the third set in the block meant that it was slated for release in May, though at some point during design the obvious question became apparent: wouldn’t a “horror world” setting make more sense for October? That meant that “Shake” would now be what we know as Innistrad, and it would need a follow-up small set to accompany it. As R&D partnered with Creative to flesh out the newly-decided two-set block, they realised that the story of the plane of Innistrad and the angelic protector Avacyn really needed three sets’ worth of telling. That meant a reversion to the traditional three-set block model, but to show the transformation that would take place with the return of Avacyn they could make the third set another large, semi-standalone set, a model we’d recently seen just a couple of blocks before. As for the original Shake and Rattle, we can be certain that it will pop up at some point down the pike.
In our previous review, we looked at Angelic Might with one eye fixed firmly on 2010’s Rise of the Eldrazi. Rise was itself an innovation, a third set which, while connected thematically to the previous Autumn set, was a full-size and self-contained expansion. With no mechanical continuity between it and Zendikar/Worldwake, it was in many ways a one-set “block,” or standalone set. Although heralded as having one of the best Limited formats in the history of the game, Rise of the Eldrazi nevertheless drew some criticism from players who felt that it was too divorced from Zendikar and lacked narrative cohesion. Wizards took this on-board as a lesson learned, as their reasoning pointed more and more to the viability and even importance of having periodic third sets that were standalones rather than expansions (for more on that, Zac Hill’s recent column on the mothership is superb reading). How, then, could you make a third, large set that still had ties to the block itself? Outwith the story arc (whcih had been continued from Zendikar to Rise of the Eldrazi), the best way to connect them is with mechanics.
Of course, it’s not enough to just continue the existing mechanics and add a few more- doing so would start to make the set feel somewhat cramped and crowded with different keywords fighting for representation. But what if you introduced some new mechanics while maintaining continuity with one from the previous sets? For Avacyn Restored, R&D decided that undying would see print in Avacyn Restored, but the rest- flashback, morbid, fateful hour, and the dual-face cards would be deemed to have run their course. In their stead would be new mechanics, soulbond and miracle. Sadly, like other “minor” mechanics before it (see: imprint, rebound, traps), miracle doesn’t get so much as a sniff in the Intro Packs. The set’s other mechanic, soulbond, however, is the very backbone of one. On that note, we’re delighted to crack into Bound by Strength.
Bound to a Higher Calling
As mentioned above, our review of Angelic Might highlighted some of the similarities between it and Rise of the Eldrazi. Bound by Strength similarly has a parallel on the tumultuous plane of Zendikar in The Adventurers. With the Allies, creatures who generated spell-like effects when others of their type entered the battlefield, there wasn’t a lot of need for a heavy noncreature support component to the deck- just a few basics including some burn and an Overrun. This deck goes even further along the same axis, forfeiting most of its support in favour of a substantial amount of creatures. Indeed, Bound by Strength is one of the most creature-heavy decks of all time,
It begins simply and appropriately with a pair of Llanowar Elves, mana rampers critical to the development of a deck even more mana-hungry than Angelic Might (an average converted mana cost of 3.23 versus 3.06). Next to them we also find a Nephalia Smuggler, a purely utilitarian inclusion whose ability to flicker your creatures allows you to break soulbonds and reforge them with other creatures. This allows a higher degree of customisation in the field, as you can mix and match your bonds to adapt to conditions on the battlefield.
Finally, we find our first soulbond creature amongst the one-drops n the Wingcrafter. The Wingcrafter is a 1/1 which grants itself and its partner flying when paired. It’s a deceptively elegant design when compared with, say, a Zephyr Sprite– one always is evasive, but is also self-contained. The other has it conditionally, but never alone. Thanks to the usefulness of flying, this is a card you’ll seldom be disappointed to draw as it is useful at any stage of the game.
In our two-drops, we have two different creatures. The Nightshade Peddler is another soulbond creature, and one of the weaker ones available. Deathtouch is a useful ability, but highly situational. It often finds best use on defense, as an opponent will often hesitate to commit their best attackers to the field until they’ve dealt with the threat. Of course, that means that your own attackers will have one more body to deal with across the table. On the upside, it can be an effective way to stall the board, and given the demands of the deck it can buy you time to get your manabase set up. This was the logic behind the inclusion of such cards as Gideon’s Lawkeeper and Angelic Wall in Angelic Might, though at least that deck had the luxury of having all of its closers be evasive. You’ll get no such luxury here. Beyond the Peddler there’s a Runeclaw Bear, about which the less said, perhaps, the better.
You get a few more non-soulbond options in the three-drops in the form of a Wolfir Avenger and pair of Latch Seekers. The Avenger is terrifically strong, a 3/3 for three mana with two relevant abilities, and is about as close to a removal spell as you’re going to find in this deck You should almost always try and cast him as a surprise blocker, getting maximal value out of the card. Across the aisle in Blue we find the Latch Seeker. The Seeker continues the unblockable theme of Blue’s creatures, and despite its low toughness its high power can make it a real threat.
For instance, consider the Tandem Lookout. A brittle 2/1 on its own, it can easily bond with the Seeker to give you a free card each turn. Of course, this does entail leaving the easily-killable Lookout sitting idle, but if you’re drawing a free card and swinging for 3 damage each turn, you should make up for the lost productivity in fairly short order. Also here we find our first stat-boosting soulbond creature in the Trusted Forcemage, and the deck gives you a trio of her. She’s a straightforward card, a simple +1/+1 bonus to her and her bonded partner.
One step up the ladder we find her next incarnation in the Druid’s Familiar. Similar to the Forcemage, it gives a +2/+2 bonus which puts it right on-curve (the bonded Forcemage is a 3/3 for three mana, the Familiar a 4/4 for four). The Elgaud Shieldmate, on the other hand, is in the “abilities-granting” form, and gives hexproof to her and her partner. She’s also a fairly robust 2/3 body, so unlike the Tandem Lookout she can be a more active participant in the red zone. Finally here we find a pair of Flowering Lumberknots, a bird of unique plumage. Unike the other soulbond cards, this Lumberknot doesn’t offer any boosts or abilities to its partner. Rather, what you get here is a cheap fattie- 5/5 for four mana- that is inert until bonded.
At the top of the mana curve we find exactly what you’d expect- the deck’s closers. The Acidic Slime is the exception here. A role-playing card, it’s removal on a stick, though a fairly ordinary stick at that. Quite far from ordinary, however, we find the deck’s foil premium rare, the Wolfir Silverheart. This monster takes the formula established by the Forcemage and Familiar above and smashes it to rubble. Unlike its earlier incarnations, which only are on-curve for their cost when bonded, the Silverheart is fine enough on its own as a 4/4, but comes a colossal 8/8 when partnered with another creature. Stick that with, say, a Wingcrafter, and you’ll be putting your opponent in a very short clock indeed.
A bit less sexy but still with a part to play are the Geist Trappers. Their larger body is welcome, though their soulbond-granted ability is quite situational. Against Angelic Might you’ll be delighted to draw this card, but against decks without fliers it’s a 3/5 body for five mana and nothing more.
As good fortune has it, the rest of the deck’s closers are even larger still. Vorstclaw is a simple 7/7 vanilla creature whose greatest virtue is his low mana cost, qhich compares quite favourably to the classic Craw Wurm. Indeed, the Craw Wurm itself gets a new paint job and upgrade with the Pathbreaker Wurm, another 6/4 for six mana that offers trample to itself and its partner. This is ideal for cards like the Silverheart and Vorstclaw, who are easily chumped, but is good virtually anywhere if only for the bonus it grants the Pathbreaker.
The final creature here is the deck’s other rare, the Deadeye Navigator. This card brings the deck full circle, as it evokes the Nephalia Smuggler at the start of the deck breakdown. Unlike the Smuggler, however, the Navigator (and its partner) exile themselves. It’s a curious ability, but it fills a similar purpose- letting you break bons when needed when the opportunity for better ones arrive. The Navigator, it should be mentioned, is no pushover either. As a 5/5, this is another one you’d like to see paired up with some other abilities like flying or trample.
Combat Against Darkness
As we noted above, the noncreature support complement here is quite minuscule, but it at least tries to hit the familiar notes. You have your dose of combat trickery in a pair of Joint Assaults, a Giant Growth variant custom-tailored to take full advantage of soulbond. Removal comes in the shape of an Ice Cage, which is fairly poor as far as removal goes but about as good as you’re going to get. You get the opportunity for card drawing in a pair of Lair Delves, which are a perfect fit in this deck thanks to the unlikelihood of hitting a non-creature/non-land card. Lastly- and critically- you have access to an Overrun. With as many troops as you’ll be able to play onto the field with Bound by Strength, you should have little trouble winning most games you’re able to resolve this spell in.
Overall, we’re a bit concerned about the deck’s composition. The soulbond mechanic is intriguing and innovative, but much of it doesn’t seem useful enough to make up for the lack of noncreature spells. The paucity of ramp is also worrying- Angelic Might cost less overall, but had a much more robust suite. These are the things we’ll be keeping an eye on when we go to test the deck. Come on back in two days’ time and see what we found!