Onslaught: Devastation Review (Part 1 of 2)
When looking at the scope and history of Magic: the Gathering sets, we tend to distill them down to their core essences. This is frequently summed up as the phrase “X matters,” where X is a card type. Zendikar, for instance, was “land matters,” while Scars of Mirrodin obviously was “artifacts matter.” Given the structure of the game, though, the one card type you seldom see inserted in this construction is “creatures matter.” The reason for this is obvious- in Magic, creatures always matter. In actual fact, however, there are sets that fall into the “creatures matter” classification, though given the default prominence creatures hold in the game it’s taken one level further. It’s not so much that creatures matter, so much as creature types matter. These are called “tribal” sets.
Thus far there have been three blocks dedicated to exploring the tribes of the game. We’ve only recently emerged from one of them, Innistrad, which populated its landscape with Vampires, Werewolves, Spirits, Zombies, and Humans. This past Summer, we took a walk through the second tribal block’s first set, Lorwyn, filled with nine different tribes (Merfolk, Kithkin, Goblins, Elves, Faeries, Giants, Changelings, Elementals, and Treefolk). Today, we crack into the game’s first-ever tribal block with a look at the Theme Decks of Onslaught.
It’s worth noting that Onslaught itself wasn’t the game’s first tribally-themed set. From the very beginnings of the game there had been cards that played on tribal themes, such as the lords of Alpha (Goblin King, Zombie Master, and Lord of Atlantis). Legends had a gaggle of Kobolds, while Fallen Empires played heavily with the theme. But in the more modern era of card design and firmly entrenched in the structure of the three-set block, Onslaught was a groundbreaking evolutionary step in tribal design.
For one thing, the entire set was structured around supporting creature tribes. There was one major tribe for each of the five colours, which fleshed out the usual host of familiar faces. Red had Goblins, Black Zombies, Soldiers for White and Green had Elves. The last colour, Blue, saw its iconic creature type- Merfolk- replaced with Wizards (we touched upon this story in our review of Merrow Riverways). But these ‘primary five’ were only the beginning, as a number of other lesser tribes also got their turn on the catwalk. One of these is the subject of today’s deck, Devastation.
Up until Odyssey and Onslaught blocks, the Beasts were at best a tribe in aspiration only. The first of their number had only appeared in 1994’s Legends, with the Beasts of Bogardan, though it wasn’t until Tempest block that ‘Beast’ became a viable- if underrepresented- creature type. Fifteen different cards in all five colours flew the Beast flag, though some of them seemed less than perfect fits (see: Marsh Lurker, Grollub). Five years later, with the completion of Odyssey block, that number spiked to 25, including such flavourful incarnations as the Wormfangs and Anurid.
Then, for Onslaught, the tribe exploded, more than doubling its number from the previous set. Not only that, but in the inaugural release it would be given the full, sixty-card Theme Deck treatment. From humble beginnings, the Beasts had arrived.
The Path of Broken Trees
Okay, one thing about this deck stands out immediately- it knows how to bring the fat. Beasts are seldom cheap regardless of which set they appear in, and Onslaught was certainly no exception. Indeed, only the geneous slice of ramp the deck affords you kept it from getting a red flag for having almost three full playsets parked at the top of the mana curve.
The deck can broadly be divided into two categories- the Beasts, and everything else. The lower end of the mana curve is exclusively devoted to supporting Elves, three each of three different types. The Elvish Pioneer clocks in at the one-drop slot. A variation on the classic Llanowar Elves, timing is everything with this card. because it lets you put an “extra” land from your hand into play when summoned, it stands to reason that this is an exciting early play and a dismal late one. By midgame, when you’re playing every land you draw (and possibly holding one in reserve for bluffing), there’s little the Pioneer will provide you aside from a 1/1 body.
The Wirewood Elf, on the other hand, comes with his own reusable mana source. Although it costs an extra mana more than the aforementioned Llanowar Elves, it does try to compensate with an extra point of toughness. It’s no great deal wither way, but given the deck’s objectives, beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to ramp.
The final option here brings something entirely different to the table. In the Wirewood Savage, you get something you don’t often associate with Red/Green stompy decks: card advantage. By letting you draw a card with every Beast played- and with a baker’s dozen of beasts to choose from- you can speed through your library at an accelerated pace, upping your ability to play the higher end of the deck’s mana curve by giving you more chances to hit those vital land drops. This is certainly a better return on the card on the whole than was found in Duel Decks: Garruk vs Liliana, which had only seven Beasts (but also a Planeswalker who generated them as well as a Beast Attack).
With the supporting Elves now behind us, be warned: here be Beasts!
The first herd arrives at the four-drop slot, comprised of a trio of Snarling Undoraks and a single Battering Craghorn. Both of these have the morph mechanic, which lets you play them face-down as a 2/2 creature for . This is not without risk, as it can certainly make them easier to negate with a burn spell. However, the advantage to the face-down morph is twofold. First, you typically unmorph them for cheaper than hardcasting. Though the morph and unmorph costs combined typically exceed the hardcast, it’s a bit like paying for something on the installment plan with interest- breaking the cost up is what makes it affordable, even if you end up paying a little extra in the long run. The Undorak is a 3/3, but has a toughness-pumping ability that extends to itself or any of its Beast bretheren. The Craghorn is less robust- a 3/1- but its first strike makes it even more formidable in combat.
Moving on to the five-drops, we find even greater biodiversity. The Charging Slateback is an exception to the “unmorph discount,” costing as much to flip as it is to hardcast. There’s a certain elegance here, however, given that the Slateback itself cannot block- but the 2/2 morph it creates can. This lets you get tricky by declaring the 2/2 morph as a blocker, then unmorphing. At this point, the Slateback is already declared as a defender, so the restriction activates too late to save your opponent’s creature. It’s a one-time deal, but can be a very unwelcome surprise for your opponent.
The Snapping Thragg continues throwing you morph curveballs by being even more expensive to flip over than to simply cast. In this case, the culprit is the Thragg’s ‘saboteur’ ability, dishing out a free Lightning Bolt to one of your opponent’s creatures if it gets through for damage. In this case, morph becomes camouflage, obscuring the Thragg’s true intentions until it’s too late to be stopped.
The final creature in the five-drops reveals the set’s returning mechanic, cycling. First introduced in 1998’s Urza’s Saga, cycling lets you trade a card that’s less useful to you in the moment for another draw. Your pair of Barkhide Maulers are just fine- 4/4’s for five mana were a perfectly acceptable deal in Green in this era- but if you find one early you might well cycle it away for the chance of drawing something more immediately useful (like a land).
Our first rare clocks in here with the thorny Tephraderm. A five-mana 4/5 in Red is already a solid deal, and it comes with some other defensive mechanisms making it a rather ‘hot potato.’ For one thing, the Tephraderm deals extra damage to any creature that deals damage to it, equal to the amount of damage that creature dealt the Tephraderm. That’s a rather clunky way of saying that the Tephraderm will kill almost any creature it encounters, unless somehow that creature is a 5/10. Anything with a more equitable split between power and toughness will almost certainly die to the Tephraderm, even if it prevails in the clash. Furthermore, any Red mage that entertains notions of simply burning it out are free to do so, but they’ll be taking an equal amount of damage in return.
Four final bruisers await us at the very top of the deck’s mana curve to complete our Beast complement. The Venomspout Brackus is a seven-mana 5/5, but is brutal against flying creatures. The morph also ensures that you can conceal its true purpose until your opponent has committed something large to the skies, then flip it to score the kill. Also costing seven mana is the Shaleskin Bruiser, a 4/4 trampler that loves attacking in packs. Swing with enough Beasts, and you can put a massive squeeze on your opponent’s life total.
Next up is the Krosan Groundshaker, the most demanding of your creatures to cast given the amount of Green mana demanded. A seven-mana 6/6, the Groundshaker can give your Beasts trample for a very reasonable cost. Lastly, the Towering Baloth is your deck’s largest natural beastick, clocking in at a mighty 7/6. Aside from morph, it carries no other abilities, but if you manage to deploy it it will command your opponent’s immediate attention.
The World Reborn
The noncreature support suite is largely comprised of the types of cards you’d expect to see. There’s some very welcome ramp support with a trio of Explosive Vegetations, which help you curve out your land drops to reach the expensive Beasts at the top of the curve. Indeed, with these each costing four mana, that puts you right into six the very next turn, which is enough to cast most of your largest bruisers.
Next we have a very solid burn package on offer. The first of these is Solar Blast, an expensive Lightning Bolt that gives you the option to cycle it and still get a reduced level of damage output. Chain of Plasma is another 3-damage option, but a very unusual one. It does its damage, but then the player so affronted has the ability to send 3 damage back across the table if they discard a card. This clearly becomes more appealing if you catch your opponent empty-handed, but can be turned to your advantage if you’ve managed to find a few Beasts with 4 or more toughness. The deck gives you two copies, and it’s a spell that will take a little getting used to.
Next up is Erratic Explosion. Later remade into Rise of the Eldrazi’s Explosive Revelation (which does the same thing, costs more, but lets you keep the revealed card), this one found its way into the modern cardframe with a reprinting in Planechase 2013. This original version does a random amount of damage, but here your bloated mana curve works in your favour by giving you an improved chance of substantial damage output. Turn over a Towering Baloth, and you’ve just blasted eight points of damage at instant speed for only three mana!
Thunder of Hooves is another burn spell with high damage potential, since it counts the number of Beasts in play (on either side of the table). This Earthquake is a risky gambit, since it only exempts fliers. That means you can find it sitting dead in your hand if you have enough Beasts in play that you would wipe your own board in the process. Truly a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ card, though with just a few Beasts out you can sometimes chance into a one-sided board wipe if your opponent is playing lots of weenies. Lastly, there’s Æther Charge, the set’s version of the Red damage enchantment (see: Rumbling Aftershocks, Burning Vengeance). Here, you get to hammer your opponent for 4 damage with every beast you cast- not a bad bonus, even if it does cast five mana and does nothing initially.
The final three cards are a misfit’s gallery. Primal Boost is the set’s Giant Growth variant, and like Solar Blast you can opt for the lesser effect and free card by cycling it. Naturalize is a staple removal card, letting you manage an artifact or enchantment. Finally, the deck’s second rare appears in the form of the Cryptic Gateway. This artifact lets you cheat creatures into play by tapping two others that share a creature type with it. This works with the Deck’s Elves, but really shows its value when it comes to the Beasts. Given their pricetag, you’ll welcome all the help you can get.
Like the cycling mechanic itself, Urza’s Saga’s iconic cycling lands (see: Slippery Karst, Polluted Mire) get another look in Onslaught with a cycle of lands that cycle for one mana of their colour. Devastation brings with it two examples of the type in the form of the Forgotten Cave and Tranquil Thicket– though, given the deck’s mana demands, this will often simply be little more than aspiration and wishful thinking.
Join us again in two days when we put Devastation to the test, and have our first clash with Onslaught!