Urza’s Saga: The Plague Review (Part 1 of 2)
Although we hinted at the failings in the block helmed by Urza’s Saga in our opening review of Tombstone, thus far we’ve focused mainly on the positives of the set. Although held up as a classic example of Melvinism (in other words, devoid of flavour), cycling was a successful mechanic that has returned throughout multiple sets (coming back in Onslaught and Alara blocks, as well as the obligatory reprint in Time Spiral). Echo is a mechanic that Mark Rosewater has stated will likely be seen again. Growing and sleeping enchantments have reappeared in various guises, and contributed to making the memorable Sleeper deck. But in spite of his, in a sense we’re just avoiding the elephant in the room, for Urza’s Saga introduced more than its fair share of problems, too.
“Magic R&D has made mistakes, but few compare to Urza’s Saga block. It was the one and only time Magic R&D has ever been brought to the CEO’s office and yelled at in my entire time at the company.” –Mark Rosewater
At the heart of the matter were two major problems, so significant that when Rosewater published a column on the top twenty mistakes made over the course of the game’s history, these two clocked in at number two and number three, only behind the near entirely of Homelands. In a nutshell, these debacles centered around set development as a whole, and the ‘free’ mechanic in particular. As a result, Wizards freely acknowledges that Urza’s Saga was “the most overpowered large expansion ever created.”
As such things often do, the free mechanic was created with the very best of intentions. R&D was looking for something comparable to cantrips, the term given to cards which in addition to some minor effect let you draw a card to replace them in your hand. Free spells, then, rather than refunding you the cost of the card you used to cast it instead refunded to you the mana you’d used to initially cast the spell. One of the problems this created, though, was that it didn’t specify which lands to untap, and some lands (see: Tolarian Academy) could tap for quite a bit more than one mana. The law of unintended consequences punished R&D hard for this as players found ways to make the refund return more mana than they’d used to cast the spell!
As it happens, Magic 2013 gave the free mechanic a return look with Rewind. As a reactive spell, this falls outside the same level of abuse-ability as the other permanent cards did, since you don’t have nearly as much control over when you can cast countermagic unless you want to cast and counter your own spell.
Card development, too, was sorely lacking, and in the wake of Urza block Wizards ended up robustly expanding their R&D team to ensure there would never be a repeat. It was a nightmare scenario for Wizards as they’d released a ridiculously fast, broken environment into the world, with games consistently ending on turns three or even two (and sometimes one!). “The joke at PT Paris (the event where Extended with freshly released Urza’s Saga was played),” lamented Rosewater, “was that the game had three stages. The early game – that’s the coin flip. The mid game – choosing your mulligans. And the late game – turn one. As someone who was on the development team I can only shake my head in embarrassment.”
On the upside, as broken as the set might have been at the competitive level, the preconstructed world is largely spared such considerations. Thus far we’ve seen a mediocre cycling deck followed by a thrilling sleeping enchantments one. Today’s deck represents another novel choice, and one in stark contrast to Sleeper. Rather than flood the board with enchantments that try to kill you, The Plague harnesses the power of but a single one: Pestilence.
Evil in the Darkness
The Plague at its heart is a control deck that looks to win the game through burst damage from a Pestilence, and unsurprisingly you are granted four copies in the deck. Like any tactically symmetrical effect, with both players and all creatures taking the same damage, the key to winning isn’t as much in use of the effect as it is in breaking the symmetry. For instance, Armageddon destroys all lands in play, but if you’ve prepared ahead of time with a slate of mana artifacts, you’ve broken the symmetry of the card and put yourself in pole position. Similarly, The Plague is packed with ways to minimise the impact Pestilence has on you and your army, while leaving your opponents wide open.
Although not as creature-light as Tombstone, The Plague boasts a relatively modest army to field. Indeed, outwith a single 4/4, every creature in the deck will be hitting for 2 points of damage at the most. What’s important, though, isn’t their offensive output- most of that will come from Pestilence- but rather what else they bring to the table.
Take, for instance. the Disciple of Grace. A small 1/2 body isn’t the most relevant you’ll find, but her protection from Black means that she’ll shrug off any Pestilence damage, and ensure that you’ll still have a creature on the board when the dust settles. Since Pestilence is sacrificed when there aren’t any in play, this is a fairly crucial detail as you don’t want to needlessly throw away your key card. By the same token, the Wall of Junk has no such colour-specific protection, but it’s 7 points of toughness means it will endure when most everything else around it is succumbing to disease.
Not enough? Don’t worry, the deck’s not done. A trio of Voices of Grace give you an aerial presence capable of withstanding your own onslaught, since they also have protection from Black. Somewhere in the middle are your Unworthy Deads. Although they can withstand Pestilence through regeneration, doing so is a rather costly proposition, since if you trigger it multiple times in a turn they’ll need to be regenerated each time. Still, they give you a solid early defensive creature in a deck that needs the luxury of some time to properly set itself up.
The remaining creatures are one-ofs that fulfil a variety of niches. The Blood Vassal is in essence a one-shot mana battery that lets you wring out an extra dose of Black mana when needed. The Silent Attendant and Sanctum Custodian are ways for you to claw back a little of the life you’ll rapidly be losing with a Pestilence on-line, making sure you can keep ahead of your opponent in the life count. Finally, your biggest beater appears in the form of the Flesh Reaver, a cut-price 4/4 with a rather clever drawback. If the Reaver hurts your opponent, well, he also hurts you. As with Pestilence, though, there are ways of blunting that symmetry.
A Walking Crypt
Indeed, the deck spends no small amount of real estate in reducing your incoming damage. For instance, Urza’s Armor– while saddled with a steep pricetag- can singlehandedly neutralise any incoming damage from your Pestilence no matter how many times you trigger it in a turn, since it prevents the damage from each activation. With this and a Pestilence in play, the game will swiftly move towards a very favourable conclusion. Intriguingly, the Armor would be upgraded to rare status for its one and only reprint in Eighth Edition.
There are cheaper options still, such as Pariah. One of the deck’s two rares, this is best stuck on one of your protection from Black creatures, which can safely absorb as much as you can throw at them. Or take Worship, the other rare. As long as you have a creature in play (which you’ll need to hold onto your Pestilence anyway), you can’t go below 1 life. It’s a riskier prospect, since death can be only a Disenchant away, but it can certainly do a job for you. Finally, a pair of Runes of Protection: Black can blunt the incoming Pestilence damage (or more, if your opponent is playing Black). Like the Unworthy Dead, though, these need to be triggered for each activation of Pestilence, so it’s a very mana-hungry solution.
To buy you the time you’ll almost certainly need to put your diabolical plan into play, The Plague packs in a fairly robust removal package to blunt your opponent’s offensive. Sicken is the weakest of these in Black, though its cycling means you can get some use out of it even if you don’t manage to find a priority target. A pair of Expunges serve as the set’s version of Doom Blade, giving you immediate killpower, while its non-Black/non-artifact restrictions are nicely circumvented by its own cycling. Against such threats you’re not complete powerless either, with a Befoul and Corrupt also appearing in the deck. The latter is a valid win condition all on its own, giving you additional reach across the table.
White kicks in its contributions with a pair of Humbles, which as we noted in our review of Sleeper are essentially ersatz removal. Twin Disenchants, meanwhile, can solve artifact or enchantment-based threats. The deck’s final card here is an Opal Acrolith. This finds a more fitting home here rather than in Sleeper for one major reason: the ability to revert to an enchantment. This lets you tuck the Acrolith out of harm’s way of your Pestilence blasts, and provide an immediate answer to any replacement threats your opponent tries to cast thanks to its strong back-end.
As is standard, The Plague also contains a handful of cycling lands in the Polluted Mire and Drifting Meadow, which trade coming into play tapped for the ability to trade them in for something better later in the game when they’re not needed. In a deck this mana-hungry, however, you might find the idea of throwing away land later in the game uncommonly distasteful.
That’s it for the breakdown! In our companion piece, we’ll be taking the deck into battle and seeing if this enchantment-reliant Black and White deck can hold its own!