Avacyn Restored: Slaughterhouse Review (Part 1 of 2)
In January of 2010, Magic players could be forgiven for their looks of puzzlement when cracking open the brand-new packs of Worldwake and finding a mythic rare called Eye of Ugin. It wasn’t entirely useless on its own at that point, but its power level certainly didn’t seem to correspond with either its rarity or its activated ability’s cost (seven mana to tutor up an artifact creature?). More puzzling still was the cryptic reference to “colorless Eldrazi spells.” Obviously all of these factors- combined with the fact that it was legendary- pointed to the card being a strong one, but it was not until the following set, Rise of the Eldrazi, that its full impact would be felt. Although the card was initially something of a curiosity, veteran players knew it for what it was: a plant.
A “plant” is the term used by Wizards R&D to describe a card put into an earlier set that’s designed to interact with cards from a later one. Sometimes these act as a sort of dramatic harbinger of things to come, as with the Eye of Ugin. Other times they’re more subtle hints, such as when Steel Overseer was slipped into Magic 2011 as an appetizer for the upcoming artifact-based set Scars of Mirrodin. Indeed, throughout the history of the game a number of plants have been seeded into sets, and most recently we saw much the same with Dark Ascension and the Helvault. What makes the Helvault a particularly interesting case is that its foreshadowing wasn’t so much resonant with a future mechanical turn (though as we’ve seen, the exile zone is prominent in this block). Rather, it was a narrative plant.
As the lore relates, the Helvault is a giant shard of moonsilver used by Avacyn as a sort of prison for unkillable demons. In the course of a titanic clash with the demon Griselbrand, both combatants end up trapped within it. With Avacyn now gone from the world, we see the decline in holy power that brought us to the state of events depicted first in Innistrad: the monsters are getting stronger, and the Humans are in peril. Meanwhile, the planeswalker Liliana Vess has been hunting the four demonic lords with whom she made her pact for power and eternal youth. Determined to track them down and slay them to free her from the bargain, she has followed Griselbrand to Innistrad and learned of his imprisonment. Manipulating the cathar Thalia into destroying the Helvault, the ancient relic cracks apart and all that has been imprisoned is once again free (if this all rings a bit familiar, by the way, there’s a good reason for it).
The Helvault is now rubble. Griselbrand is loose, pursued by Liliana. Avacyn is restored. And every other thing that’s been trapped inside the Helvault for generations has made their escape.
Now the fun really begins.
Slaughterhouse is a deck all about killing things. Unlike most such decks, however, it isn’t one that directs its mayhem towards the other side of the table. Rather, similar to decks we’ve seen such as Mirrodin’s Sacrificial Bam and Coldsnap’s Beyond the Grave, this is a one with a much broader appetite. In short, this deck is at its happiest when its eating it’s own.
To be certain, a deck which did nothing but destroy its own permanents would not be a deck for long. Instead, the objective of these decks is simple- take advantage of permanents that don’t mind dying to feed ones that reward you for when they do. Towards that end, many of its cards involve sacrifice and sacrifice outlets, along with the fodder that drives the deck forward.
For fodder, we have a number of creatures that are perfectly willing to take one for the team. To begin with, consider the Goblin Arsonist. A humble one-drop 1/1, the Arsonist can be cashed in at any time for a single point of damage. While that does mean it can’t be sacrificed to something quite as readily, as we’ll see some other cards here are happy to simply be able to watch as the Arsonist goes off to the graveyard.
From there we have a few two-drops. The Butcher Ghoul is another 1/1 creature, but thanks to undying it actually comes back stronger than before. One of the weaknesses of sacrifice engines is that they can be left vulnerable to card disadvantage- undying goes a long way towards squaring that deal. On a similar note we also see a pair of Reassembling Skeletons. One of the staples of the contemporary sac engine decks, the Skeletons skirt disadvantage by being able to be summoned over and over. Although exile is more prominent in this set as a whole, little should prevent you from getting maximum value out of it.
In the three-drops, we find a trio of Soulcage Fiends. A 3/2, the Fiend carries with it a charming death effect of life loss for each player at the table. Although odious when you’re well behind, if you can get ahead in the life totals this card can help you close out your opponent. Three power for three mana doesn’t hurt, either.
Moving up the ladder to the four-drops, we find a Driver of the Dead. Acting as a sort of junior Reveillark, the Driver nabs something out of your graveyard and returns it to play, with the caveat that its passenger must have a power of 2 or less. It’s an interesting twist on the Gravedigger, which has no size restriction on its target but returns it to hand rather than play. Still, the extra point of power is certainly a welcome addition to the mould. Here you also find a pair of Evernight Shades. A four-mana 1/1, these command a premium thanks to undying, but overall Shades tend to be significantly weaker in two-colour decks such as this. While it certainly provides a check on its power level, any modifications to the deck might well begin here.
Finally, at the top of the curve we find our final two pieces of fodder. The Maalfeld Twins are a 4/4 body for six mana, which the upside that when they die they like the Grave Titan dream and sprout out a pair of 2/2 Zombie tokens. The Gang of Devils, on the other hand, is quintessentially Red- upon death, it gives you 3 points of damage to distribute however you see fit.
The deck’s other main class of creatures are the profiteers who gain from the misery of their fellow deckmates. The Blood Artist provides us our first example, a feeble 0/1 body that holds a powerful life-syphoning effect. Taking a bit more of an active role is the Bloodflow Connoisseur, a Vampire in the traditional model which trades creatures for power. Unlike predecessors Vampire Aristocrat and Bloodthrone Vampire, the Connoisseur’s bonus is smaller- but permanent.
The pair of Demonic Taskmasters might seem an unusual fit for this category on first blush- after all, they don’t directly benefit from the death of another creature- but their bonus is a touch more subtle. Their gain is already baked-in, simply by fact that you’re paying a mere three mana for a 4/3 evasive body- a steal! Of course, such power comes with a terrible price, but a creature of this size with flying shouldn’t need long to help wrap up a game.
In the four-drops, we find a Havengul Vampire and Demonlord of Ashmouth. The Vampire is a clever case- not only does it carry the traditional “Slith” bonus common to the Vampires of Innistrad (see: Stromkirk Noble, Bloodcrazed Neonate), like the Blood Artist it also has a passive death trigger which gives it more +1/+1 counters. In that regard it is reminiscent of the Falkenrath Marauders, which also start small but can get big in a hurry. The Demonlord, on the other hand, is a more straightforward beatstick. At the cost of a creature up-front, you get a 5/4 flying body with undying- another fantastic deal (unless you happen to be the poor bloke that got exiled to feed him).
Finally, we find the deck’s premium rare at the top of the curve, the Harvester of Souls. A 5/5 for six mana, its deathtouch is little more than flavour as a 5/5 will kill most things it faces through simple attrition. Nevertheless, it houses a powerful card-drawing engine, and can net you a ton of cards if you manage to build the deck’s sacrifice engine early enough.
In the leftovers category, we find a pair of Raging Poltergeists and a Hunted Ghoul. Essentially filler, the Poltergeists pack a powerful punch, but will fall to all but the meekest creatures on the battlefield. Grossly asymmetrical cards like this often fall into the defender’s role, for who wants to pay five mana to trade with an opponent’s leftover 1/1. The Hunted Ghoul is a novelty, a 1/2 in Black that gets the extra point of power in return for a small blocking concession- though one that’s fairly relevant in this block.
Given its heavy creature content, like Bound by Strength the noncreature support complement here is fairly threadbare. There’s a solid removal package, however, which ties right into the deck’s themes. Both the Shards of Alara reprint Bone Splinters as well as Fling require the offering of one of your own creatures to power their lethal payload, while Barter in Blood happily does its grim business with lethal symmetry. In all cases, Slaughterhouse should be much better equipped to take advantage of the loss of creatures than any opponent given how much it can gain from things dying.
Unhallowed Pact also profits from death, but in a different manner- whenever the creature enchanted by this aura dies, you get to put it into play under your control. This is good for orchestrating the theft of one of your opponent’s most powerful creatures, but if your opponent doesn’t have anything worth stealing it can serve double-duty on one of your own creatures, acting as an ersatz regeneration effect. If instead you’re simply after digging around in your own graveyard, you get a pair of Grave Exchanges. Acting as both recursion as well as removal, you pay a hefty price for getting both effects in a single card. Finally, there’s a singleton copy of Scroll of Griselbrand, adding a dash of life loss and discard to the deck.
Overall, we’re quite intrigued by the possibilities the deck offers. Both Beyond the Grave as well as Sacrificial Bam were well-reviewed decks that were a lot of fun to play- can Slaughterhouse follow in their grim footsteps? We’ll find out in our conclusion.