Return to Ravnica: Golgari Growth Review (Part 1 of 2)
2010’s Scars of Mirrodin was an exciting and inspiring set. Although not universally loved, of course, even its detractors had to be pleased with the basic question that the set’s existence raised. If we can return to Mirrodin, the thought went, where else could we go? Some strands of thought emanating from this question went a little further than others- there weren’t many clamouring for a return to Sarpadia, the setting for Fallen Empires, for example. But there were two names that kept coming up over and over in the Magic community.
The first of these was Kamigawa. Largely regarded as a failure in large part to its underwhelming power level coming in the wake of Mirrodin, there was some wondering as to whether or not Wizards might ever consider returning to that world to “make things right.” This very point was addressed by Mark Rosewater in his Tumblr feed:
We have to be careful not to fall into the “let’s take something that didn’t work and do it again to prove that we can make it work” trap. Coldsnap, for example, was us doing that it it turned out badly…
I’m not saying we’ll never do it because Scars of Mirrodin, for example, was us revisiting a plane while popular was also a time that drove many players out of the game (more for broken environment reasons than setting but still).
That, in addition to other posts about the topic, left little room for doubt that overall while we wouldn’t likely be returning to Kamigawa as an entirety, there was a fair likelihood of seeing some of the set’s mechanics crop back up in subsequent years, even if they had to be tinkered with a bit to make for a cleaner break (particularly bushido and splice onto Arcane).
The other, and most commonly-suggested world to return to was Ravnica.
In the halls of conventional wisdom and popular opinion, Ravnica was was of the most-loved and most successful sets Magic has ever released- Rosewater noted that they felt that they had captured “lightning in a bottle” after it had been released. This was down to a number of reasons ranging from card and block design to having a compelling setting, but the crown jewel of the set could only be the guild system. In addition to making an orderly breakdown of colour pairings to weave its set around, Ravnica also gave players an easy way to self-identify with what colours they preferred to play. To that point, players had identified themselves with their colours alone, “I”m a Green mage,” or, “I like Blue/Black.” Being able to give a guild and name to each twin pair gave a great many players a way to deepen their emotional involvement in the game.
This should leave little room for surprise, then, when Rosewater admits that the decision to make a sequel block to Ravnica was made well in advance of Scars of Mirrodin. In fact, it was made before the second set of Ravnica block had even been released! To give a buffer of time between blocks, Wizards would wait until the second gold-card centered block after Ravnica to bring it back. The first of these as we know now was 2008’s Shards of Alara, and so even as players were getting accustomed to the notion of returning to a world like Mirrodin and speculating where we might go next, the answer as it turns out was already set in ink.
Nowhere to Run
Radically different in execution to the first Golgari deck, Golgari Deathcreep, both decks share a similar underpinning philosophy: waste not, want not. In Deathcreep we saw that enacted through the dredge mechanic, while this time around we get scavenge.
While the former gave us a radically different way to play Magic, scavenge is much more conventional, a sort of back-end incremental advantage. Although the creatures the deck boasts aren’t themselves tremendous bargains, they can become so through the addition of +1/+1 counters. Take, for example, the deck’s one-drop, Slitherhead. Often conditionally useful in relation to when they’re drawn, Slitherhead offers a simple 1/1 body that- once dead- can bestow a +1/+1 counter on any other creature you control for free. Rooting around in the compost pile has never been easier!
With a total of eight two-drops, the deck clearly wants you to curve out early and start swarming the board with your Golgari minions. We begin with a trio of Walking Corpses, a useful if somewhat uninspiring choice. How soon we forget! The Corpse generated a bit of buzz when it first came out in Innistrad, thanks to its obvious improvement over the classic Scathe Zombies. Black traditionally gets a poor return for its mana in the creature world, so a Black equivalent of Grizzly Bears was certainly noteworthy. A year on, we find that it has been enshrined in Magic 2013 and included in the deck, yet the reaction has tended to be fairly negative. Certainly three copies might seem a bit much, though it shouldn’t be surprising since we’re only on the first set of the new block. Return to Ravnica isn’t overflowing with Black options at this cost- one of the three is already included here, and the other two are from a different guild entirely (though as we’ll see, that’s not necessarily an impediment). The Walking Corpse may not be sexy, but it provides what the deck needs- a solid body at the two-drop slot.
The other creature Return to Ravnica offers is the Daggerdrome Imp, a 1/1 evasive body with lifelink. Against aerial opponents it has a rather short window of opportunity, but against a more gound-based deck it’s a strong option. Initially unimpressive, the addition of a few scavenged +1/+1 counters makes the lifelink especially impressive. As for scavenge options, we find our next candidate here in the form of the Drudge Beetle. The high cost of the ability- especially when compared to other options like Slitherhead and the Sluiceway Scorpion– reveals just how much ‘leftover space’ Wizards feels is available to Green on a two-mana, 2/2 body. Were it significantly cheaper, it would be a considerable upgrade over the classic Runeclaw Bear, but having to wait until turn six at the earliest leaves this a later-game option only, and sets the power level of the card.
Finally, the Korozda Guildmage is the Golgari’s representative in the Guildmage cycle. Unlike the Selesnyan model we saw in our review of Selesnya Surge, the Korozda doesn’t directly synergise with the guild’s mechanic. Instead, you get a pair of useful abilities. The first one gives one of your creatures a small power boost and intimidate, which is great for getting one of your best beaters through a congested red zone. The second ability lets you sacrifice a creature to reap its toughness’ worth of Saprolings. There’s no great use for them in the deck other than to provide more creatures, but it can certainly give some extra value on a creature you’re already set to lose, as well as provide a sacrifice outlet if you need to get something to the graveyard in a pinch.
Moving on to your three-drops, we find a trio of one-off options. First is the Stonefare Crocodile, another straightforward creature with a nifty trick. In this case, a three-mana investment can return a bit of lifegain. It’s not a great ability, but if you’ve some extra mana left over during your turn you could do worse. Next up is a familiar face, the Dreg Mangler, which was a preview card in the recent Duel Decks: Izzet vs Golgari. A three-mana 3/3 with haste and scavenge, it’s a useful creature at most any point in the game.
Finally, we find the deck’s first rare in the Wild Beastmaster. A mere 1/1, the Beastmaster acts as a sort of cheerleader for the team, giving your other creatures a power/toughness boost equal to her power. This works well with scavenge, making her a high-priority target for your +1/+1 counters.
On to the four-drops, we find the Korozda Monitor, a simple 3/3 with trample. The latter makes it another great target for bulking up through scavenge, and the deck carries a pair of these. The Sluiceway Scorpion is another scavenge creature, and at a reasonable pricetag. In addition, thanks to deathtouch it can be a tricky creature for your opponent to work around in the red zone.
The Slum Reaper is a 4/2 with a symmetrical enters-the-battlefield effect, compelling each player to sacrifice a creature. This is a classic example of a deck that tinkers with the symmetry of a drawback to make the outcome more in your favour than your opponent’s. Since your scavenge creatures retain some utility after death- and your opponent’s typically don’t- your loss isn’t felt as keenly since you can just rustle up some +1/+1 counters. The deck’s other rare, the foil Corpsejack Menace, checks in here as well. The Menace is an on-curve four-mana 4/4, but it’s the passive ability that it brings that makes it one of your strongest cards in the deck. By doubling the number of +1/+1 counters your scavenging can produce, you can grow your army at alarming speed.
The remaining creatures all occupy real estate at the top of the deck’s mana curve. You have a pair of vanilla 5/4 beaters in the Golgari Longlegs, and a Terrus Wurm begins some additional fat to the table- wit ha pricetag to match. The Veilborn Ghoul is an M13 card which offsets its brittle toughness with the ability to return to your hand from the graveyard each time you play a Swamp, though the fact that it can’t block does somewhat mitigate its usefulness.
The Acidic Slime is a solid performer that finds a home in Constructed play, and works well here to solve any threat your opponent is playing from an artifact, enchantment, or land source. A 2/2 with deathtouch is useful as well as an extra attacking option or an impediment to your opponent’s own offensive plans. Finally, a Gobbling Ooze is a useful combination card when the Corpsejack Menace is in play, but otherwise functions as a reasonable sacrifice outlet for doomed creatures and the occasional one you want to recycle.
The Colony Below
With the deck being fairly reliant upon creature combat, you’d expect a fairly solid removal suite to help keep the lanes clear for your beaters, but initial impressions of Return to Ravnica indicate that it’s not deviating in a significant way from the toned-down removal level we saw in Innistrad block. The most effective card here is Murder from M13, and tellingly you only get one copy in the deck. Aerial Predation is another kill spell, albeit one limited only to fliers. Against a ground-based deck, that’s a dead draw.
Next we find two copies of Launch Party. A variant of Bone Splinters, Launch Party is quite a bit more expensive. For the extra mana, though, you get to do your grim work at instant speed, and with a little dose of life loss for your opponent tacked on at the end. It’s not a bad spell aside from the cost, and with so many creatures which are just as happy to be dead as alive here the drawback doesn’t hurt nearly as much.
Another M13 card checks in here with Serpent’s Gift. This card falls under the category of “ersatz removal,” since it doesn’t do any killing on its own but can set up a lethal situation for one of your opponent’s creatures. Since typically this means that your creature dies too (otherwise, why use the Gift), that makes it an inherent two-for-one. The last bit of removal is a new card, Rites of Reaping. The Rites boost one of your creatures while either killing or reducing one of theirs, though it costs six mana and is a sorcery. Anyone tuning the deck might well begin here, for there’s much room for improvement over this rather conditional collection.
The remainder of the deck consists of a few odds and ends. There’s a bit of graveyard recursion in a Disentomb and Treasured Find. Grisly Salvage lets you take the best creature or land card from the top five of your library and dump the rest into your graveyard, where many of them can continue to be useful. Finally, there’s a pair of Golgari Keyrunes, which can provide either mana or become a 2/2 deathtouch creature for a turn. Throw in the Golgari Guildgate, and you have yourself a deck!
Check back in two days and we’ll conclude the review with a look at how the deck plays in the field, as well as deliver a final verdict.