Avacyn Restored: Death’s Encroach Review (Part 1 of 2)
Even Deck reviews, for us, have tended to become bittersweet affairs. Although it’s great to tear into a new precon- especially one tuned to the higher degree these tend to be- it also signals that our time with a particular set is drawing to a close. After these reviews have concluded, the next time we’ll be looking at the world of Innistrad through the prism of its precons is in Autumn when the next Preconstructed Champonships take place. Of course, there’s always the hope that we might oneday return to the plane in a future set.
If this last idea has a certain amount of obviousness to it- witness the popularity of serials and sequels in film and story- it is perhaps only recently wrought. Last year’s Scars of Mirrodin represented the first time Wizards took players back to a world that had been covered in a previous expansion (2003’s Mirrodin). And again this Autumn we’ll have another treat in store when Return to Ravnica is released. According to Mark Rosewater, the players have spoken and they enjoy these returns to advance an old story, so long it seems as that plane is not Kamigawa (one can always hope).
With comparatively few colour combinations being viable for an Event Deck, whose entire raison d’etre is to give a player at least a fighting chance at their local competitive circuit, it is no surprise then that we have started to see returns to other colour patterns as well. Fitting, then, that carrying the banner of the relentless returning are the Zombies, following in the footsteps of the Vampires from Magic 2012’s Vampire Onslaught.
Vampire Onslaught was a successful deck, jam-packed with aggressive creatures but with little room left over for much of anything else (a playset of Dismembers, a couple Blades of the Bloodchief, and- why not- a Mimic Vat). It looked to race right out of the gate with eight one-drops, moving up to a full dozen two-drops before tapering back off. In short, if it couldn’t establish battlefield dominance early, its chances of winning dropped precipitously- though to its credit the deck did have some combo engines in place for just that contingency (looping Mimic Vat/Viscera Seer/Kalastria Highborn). Although the Zombies are every bit as hungry as the Vampires were, they do seem to take a more moderated approach.
Although costed for early deployment, Death’s Encroach eases off the gas pedal a bit, but in return it has a very competent removal suite. If the Vampires’ approach was “swarm at all costs,” the Zombies have a bit more consideration about them thanks to the kill spells. Rather than going up and over, they have the luxury of simply going through. It seems a strange world where the Zombies are the ones with a touch more finesse over Vampires, but hey, this is Innistrad, and things aren’t always what they seem.
Cure Them of Their Lives
Right off the bat, we find an opening suite of Diregraf Ghouls, one of the two much-ballyhooed replacements for the classic Scathe Zombies. Although unable to offer anything on defense when first deployed, they can attack a turn sooner than their more common counterpart, the Walking Corpse. In a deck where that early momentum is crucial, that’s a huge difference. Like most Zombies, the Ghoul isn’t going to overwhelm you with power (it’s a 2/2), but though Death’s Encroach does cede some creature count for removal, it is still very much a swarm deck. This is in evidence by the deck’s other one-drop, the Gravecrawler. An entirely offensive-minded beater, the Gravecrawler sums up the relentlessness of the Zombie tribe in a single card- it keeps coming and coming and coming. Unless your opponent can exile it (through, for instance, a Pillar of Flame), you should manage to either cast or swing with this guy most every turn.
A playset of Highborn Ghouls lead us into the garden of two-drops, and offers us another 2/1 body. Unlike the Gravecrawler, once down this Ghoul stays that way, but it can be considerably harder to deal with on the battlefield. Thanks to intimidate, you’ll often be able to march these right past your opponent’s defenses- a critical source of recurring damage. From there we have a Gloom Surgeon, which strikes a slightly dissonant note here. For one thing, it’s not a Zombie, though there’s not a lot of tribal interaction in the deck (Gravecrawler aside). Also, exiling cards from your library is a fine way to lose the Gravecrawler altogether. Ordinarily we’d ascribe to the “hakuna matata” theory of library loss- you don’t get upset at the end of a game about the cards at the bottom of your library you didn’t get to cast, so it’s pointless to get upset when you lose them through other means as well. Still, this is a bit of a “nonbo” (or bad combination). The upside for all that is still only a 2/1- albeit one that won’t die in combat.
The last two cards here are Crypt Creepers. These are highly context-dependent, fairly worthless in most environments but quite nice to have in the one we’re currently in (and not for nothing, it’s a reprint from Odyssey, another graveyard-matters set which helped spawn Innistrad). The Creeper can take care of nuisance flashback cards your opponent is waiting to use, thwart an opponent playing a reanimator-type deck, and even whisk away an undying creature before it has a chance to come back to the battlefield to trouble you. In that regard, don’t look at it as the loss of a creature when activated, but rather see the Creeper as a spell with legs.
Moving into the three-drops, we find some very busy cards. The Ghoulraiser offers a dose of card advantage, returning a random Zombie from your graveyard to hand when summoned. Since this is nearly an all-Zombie deck filled with small creatures, you’ll seldom be at a loss for value here, and the deck gives you a trio. We also get a pair of rares in the Cemetery Reaper and Geralf’s Messenger. The Reaper is a tribal “lord,” giving all of your Zombies a +1/+1 bonus. Furthermore, it’s able to set up a three-mana assembly line of Zombies by harvesting creature cards in graveyards- both your own as well as your opponent’s. Given the creature pump, this is one card you’ll always be happy to draw.
Geralf’s Messenger is another intriguing card, which comes with several abilities. Like the Diregraf Ghoul, don’t expect the Messenger to fortify your defensive position when played. It will, however, Shock your opponent upon entry, and thanks to undying it can do it again later in the game after falling in battle. It’s an excellent utility card, and it’s mana cost means little in a mono-Black deck.
The final creature here is a playset of Skinrenders, from Scars of Mirrodin. In addition to being your biggest body on the battlefield (weighing in at a hefty 3/3), these Zombies also further your war plans by offering the ability to hurt or kill something when they come into play. What makes them particularly odious is that their loving touch is done in the form of -1/-1 counters, so if they don’t kill something outright, they can permanently weaken it. That’s tremendous value, and vastly better than a “-3/-3 until end of turn” offering.
The Dead Sleep Lightly
As discussed above, the deck takes a more rounded approach than the previous mono-Black Event Deck did when it comes to its noncreature support. This is most noticeable in the removal, which is very solid. In addition to the set of Skinrenders, Death’s Encroach offers you a pair of Doom Blades, twin Dismembers, and a trio of Go for the Throats. The Blades, of course, are situational, and will be the first thing you sideboard out if youre up against a fellow Black deck. It’s still a fine risk to run, however, given how many other decks you’ll find yourself up against- sadly, MBC (mono-Black Control) still isn’t a thing.
Three Despises help pluck nuisance cards out of your opponent’s hand preemptively, while a trio of Altar’s Reaps give you card draw. These will best be used when one of your creatures is about to die anyway- though the dream of sacrificing your Geralf’s Messenger when your opponent is at 2 life burns brightly. Finally, to help break through any defensive barriers your opponent has managed to erect, a pair of Lashwrithes will offer a tremendous boost (always at least a 4/4 for four mana when first played). With the cheap equip cost, unless your opponent is packing artifact hate they’re going to be dealing with a succession of massive creatures heading their way.
The First Bite is Always the Juiciest
The sideboard for Death’s Encroach offers some useful ways to tune the deck to better present against what your opponent is carrying. Much of this builds upon the preemptive hand sculpting already seen in the deck, with another copy of Despise in with a pair of Appetites for Brains and Distresses. If that’s not enough, there’s also a Surgical Extraction to punish them with if they rely heavily on any one particular card.
Deathmark offers additional removal options against a White or Green opponent, and you have three of them at your disposal. If you need additional Crypt Creepers to tend to your opponent’s graveyard, you’ve got a couple more here as well. If your opponent is able to pick off a lot of your own creatures, you also have the option of adding another Ghoulraiser.
The final card here is an narrow one- Triumph of Cruelty. This is designed to hose control decks which don’t play a lot of creatures, but try and finish you off with a big closer at the end. With few competing creatures on the board, even your low-power Zombies can trigger it even outwith the arrival of a Lashwrithe, and it can keep your opponent under constant threat of discard.
We greatly enjoyed playing Vampire Onslaught, and look for no less when Death’s Encroach takes to the field. Before we playtest, however, we’ll next look at the opposing Event Deck, Humanity’s Vengeance. See you in two days!