Lorwyn: Elvish Predation Review (Part 1 of 2)
When the RMS Titanic left the docks at Southampton on 10 April, 1912, it was with the very highest of expectations. Although the unqualified label of “unsinkable” was actually a posthumous appellation, there were no shortage of accolades bestowed upon her prior to launch. “As far as it is possible to do,” claimed the White Star Line, perhaps coming closest, “[the Titanic] is designed to be unsinkable.” To be sure, the ship was designed to the highest standards, even exceeding many of the regulations of the day. Designed by famed (some would say notorious) Belfast shipyards Harland and Wolff, the experienced naval architects knew what had worked for previous luxury liners, and what they needed to improve upon. Indeed, that primary factor that turned the endeavour from travesty to tragedy was a much smaller detail than ship design.
As designed, the Titanic was equipped to be able to carry a full complement of sixty-four wooden lifeboats, which would have given a rescue capacity of some 4,000 people. The drawback of a full complement, however, was that it obscured the view of the passengers on the deck, so the White Star Line stocked her with twenty for the voyage (plus four collapsible models). When the Titanic met her fatal end five days later, the lifeboats could only hold about half of those onboard.
There is a risk in using any human tragedy in comparison to a collectible card game, and even as the Titanic has sailed on into the mists of cultural lore and myth we should pause a moment and reflect on the actual loss of life and sorrow of the event- not just for those aboard, but for the exponential number of those who lost a friend or loved one. But when looking for a historic event to highlight the contrast between expectation and outcome, the sinking of the Titanic rightly or wrongly is at the very top of the list.
Moving back into the realms of the multiverse, let’s next consider the following:
Lorwyn is a fun set. And it does so many things right. I’m not just talking about design. I feel the development on the set was excellent. The creative work is also top notch. The whole package just comes together beautifully. It’s both distinctive yet familiar. It’s simple yet deeply layered.
That was Mark Rosewater on 24 September, 2007 in a preview article for Lorwyn on the mothership. Now here are some relevant snippets taken from his Tumblr account when asked by readers about the “failure” of Lorwyn:
Lorwyn’s lesson was about drifting too far from the center of your game’s mood. 22 APR 12
Basically the problem with the world was that many players didn’t like the overly light tone. It turns out that our player base likes Magic a little more “bad-ass” than Lorwyn. 21 APR 12
Our goal with Lorwyn was to make the cards more straightforward. We wanted the rules text to be very clear in what the cards did. We spent a lot of time making sure their intent was simple and understandable, but as the block played out we discovered that we hadn’t gotten rid of the complexity; we had just moved it to a different area of the game. “New World Order” 05 DEC 11
There Is Such a Thing as Too Much. Looking back on the year, I see so many wonderful mechanics. My big question is: did we need all of them? What if Lorwyn didn’t have clash and hideaway? What if Shadowmoor didn’t have conspire? (I chose these mechanics, by the way, because they were the ones that scored lowest in our research.) Yes, they were good mechanics and they were woven into the set, but were we overstuffing? I’m leaning towards yes. The designs of both Morningtide and Eventide were pinched because we had more things we wanted to do than we had space to do them. “State of Design 2008” 01 SEP 2008
Now consider Lorwyn from head of R&D Aaron Forsythe’s perspective, in a developer chat with the community about Zendikar in October of 2009:
<+obsidiandice> What do you consider development’s biggest success over the last few years? Its biggest failure?
<@mtgaaron> Failure… Time Spiral block and Lorwyn block were way too cutesy-complicated–every card did too much, games bogged down or got really complicated, and they were rejected by a large part of the audience. To put it in MaRo’s terms, we were making those sets too much for ourselves. Alara, M10, and Zendikar have been more correct on that axis.
Over the following weeks we’ll be working our way through the Theme Decks of Lorwyn, both their “failures” as well as their successes. In this “year of firsts,” a casual theme throughout the last six months of reviews, Lorwyn has a number of claims to fame- not least for being the first set to feature five decks rather than the customary four that had been in place with the start of the format in Tempest. This wasn’t the first deviation- that honour would go to Guildpact and it’s trio of decks- but it was the first time that number had increased. And with an eye towards things that increase, we now turn to Lorwyn’s Elves. Given a fresh coat of paint and some tweaking with the 2009 Duels of the Planeswalkers deck Ears of the Elves, this was the deck at its very core.
Death or Nettlevine
As you can see by the curve above, this is a solidly mid-game deck with some presence and the early and late-game. You’ll find your period of most growth typically in the five-to-six mana range, when you can reliably play more than one card per turn. Fortunately, Elvish Predation comes equipped with some mana ramp options to speed things up.
The deck begins with a pair of Elvish Eulogists, the rare one-drop that you actually want to avoid drawing until late in the game. Although lifegain options are seldom sexy, the tribal nature of the Lorwyn decks mean that cards like this can potentially offer a substantial return. Of course, that means that a number of your Elves have perished first, perhaps making the lifegain particularly welcome.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find our the first of our ramping options in a pair of Leaf Gilders, upgraded Llanowar Elves that deliver an extra point of power in return for costing one more mana. You also have recourse to a Wren’s Run Vanquisher, which offers you a useful bargain: reveal another Elf card from your hand, and you get a substantial discount over what you would ordinarily pay. Finally, a trio of Scarred Vinebreeders occupies a similar niche as the Eulogists, a creature quite happy to see its kinfolk piling up like cordwood in the graveyard. Easily convertible into a 3/3 or even 7/7 later in the game, the Vinebreeder will be a useful later-game option.
Of course, if you’re having trouble seeing off Elves to the scrapheap, the Lys Alana Scarblade is more than happy to help you. There’s often a reticence particularly amongst newer players to “throwing away perfectly good cards,” but if you look at it as if she turns every one of your Elf cards in hand into a removal spell, it might be more palatable to take. Of course, the charm of the card is this inherent natural tension, where you want to have Elves in play to make her stronger, but Elves in hand to discard to her.
Also caring about the strength of your Elvish population are your Jagged-Scar Archers, who wholly derive their power and toughness by the number of Elves you have in play. They also offset Green’s traditional weakness to flying creatures by tapping to deal them damage. Although highly conditional, against a flight-heavy deck this reusable removal can virtually steal games on its own.
Just as the Scarblade helps you populate your graveyard for those cards that care about such grim business, the Imperious Perfect helps you stock the battlefield with living, breathing 1/1 Elf tokens. Thanks to her other ability, giving all your Elves +1/+1. Not for nothing she’s a $5 card on Star City Games, the linchpin of many an Elvish tribal deck. From there we find a pair of Elvish Harbingers and a trio of Gilt-Leaf Seers.
One thing often seen in Lorwyn are horizontal cycles, cards which have the same or a similar identify across different colours at the same rarity. For instance, one card mentioned above, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, is the Elvish version of a card design also found with Goblins (Squeaking Pie Sneak), Flamekin (Flamekin Bladewhirl), Merrow (Silvergill Adept), and Kithkin (Goldmeadow Stalwart). Similarly, there is a cycle of Harbingers which let you tutor a tribe-specific card to the top of your library while providing a useful ability for the longer-term. In the Elves’ case, the Elvish Harbinger is another ramping option for your more expensive cards. It’s also important to note that thanks to tribal, Elvish cards aren’t limited to creatures. The deck also carries Elvish instants, sorceries, and enchantments- in fact, there are only two nonland cards in the entire deck that the Harbinger can’t find for you.
The last card in the three-drops is the Gilt-Leaf Seer. A humble 2/2 with a seemingly innocuous ability to rearrange the order of the top two cards of your library, the Seer is here to assist with one of Lorwyn’s mechanical innovations: clash. Clash in essence is a random bonus assigned to a number of your cards which may or may not trigger depending on the outcome of quasi-random chance. Because clash relies upon the casting cost of nonland cards in the deck, it’s not purely random- decks with more expensive cards will have a better chance at winning a clash overall, but of course that leaves them filled with expensive cards. The Gilt-Leaf Seer is a hedge, a way of letting you improve your chances of winning whenever you play a card with the keyword. Whenever a precon gives you three or four copies of a card, there’s usually a specific reason why.
Things start to slow down in the four-drops, though the options here begin to get quite strong. A trio of Moonglove Winnowers offer you a simple 2/3 body with deathtouch and solid value overall. A pair of Lys Alana Huntmasters are another Elf token generator, giving you another body on the battlefield for every Elf spell you cast with them in play. Another $5 Elf, the Immaculate Magistrate, rounds out our collection of four-drops. Like a number of the other Elves, her power grows in proportion to the number of Elves you’ve managed to land on the battlefield.
The remaining Elves all cost five mana, and bring some unusual abilities to the table for you. The Hunter of Eyeblights frightens its prey when it enter the battlefield, pumping up an opponent’s creature with a +1/+1 counter. Of course, the Hunter’s second ability- tapping to destroy creatures with a counter on them- means that it’s prey typically won’t have long to enjoy the bonus. It’s also useful for dealing with any of your opponent’s creatures that utilise counters. And not that you can rely on getting it, but since the Magistrate will put her counters on any creature, you can set up a two-card combo to kill your opponent’s best creature every turn for three mana.
Speaking of counters, Nath’s Elite have the ability to come into play with one, making them a substantially better buy for your five mana. Of course, the catch is that you have to win a clash for it, but if you’ve managed to play a Gilt-Leaf Seer this can be a more reliable prospect. In addition, the Elite have a built-in Lure effect. If your opponent has a number of creatures out, this might well mean that their first attack is also their last one, but at the same time the rest of your Elves will be rushing into the breach eager to cripple your opponent’s life total. The last creature here is Nath of the Gilt-Leaf himself. We’d mentioned cycles above, and indeed four of the five Lorwyn Theme Decks each have a rare legend leading them. Pity the poor Goblins, then, who are bereft of such direction. Here, Nath is a potent weapon, forcing an opponent to discard a card at random. In return, you get- that’s right- another 1/1 Elf token. On top of that, at 4/4 he’s reliably the largest creature in the deck, and you’ll be quite happy to find him in the course of a game.
A Ribbon Torn
With so many of its effects occurring on the battlefield, there’s little room left over for much in the way of noncreature support. What’s more, over half of these spells are actually token generators! For instance, Prowess of the Fair replaces any of your nontoken casualties with a 1/1 token, ensuring a steady supply of Elves in play. Elvish Promenade doubles your Elf population in a stroke, giving you an Elf token for each Elf you control. Finally, Gilt-Leaf Ambush is an instant-speed token-maker that has the added upside of offering the possibility of deathtouch for the turn, just the thing you’d like in a surprise blocker. Of course, you still have to win a clash first.
From there, the deck offers you a sprinkling of removal with a pair of Eyeblight’s Endings, alongside a Wanderer’s Twig for mana fixing. The final card, Lammastide Weave, is a bit of a curiosity. On the face it of, it seems an odd bird to find in Green instead of Blue, the colour of library manipulation. What the Wave does, however, is give you another edge in clashes. In resolving a clash, you have the option of putting the revealed card back on either the top or the bottom of your library. With a Wave in hand, you’ll get full value after a clash, with the only drawback being that you’ll lose the card revealed to the graveyard (which often won’t be much of a drawback anyway).
We’ll next be putting the Elves up against one of their fellow tribes and returning with a report of how well the deck performed. See you in two days’ time!