Onslaught: Ivory Doom Review (Part 1 of 2)
When Magic: the Gathering launched in 1993, nobody could have known that the game would become what it is today, nearly two decades later. It is a testament to Richard Garfield’s vision that the game has endured in a state of static flux- something of a contradiction, to be fair. But how else could you cataegorise the fact that while the core essentials of the game have more or less remained unchanged, it is a game itself of constant change?
From a historical perspective, a fun exercise one can do is to peruse the cards of Alpha and see how they have made threads that have been woven into the very fabric of the game. Consider the iconic Black Lotus, the pater familias of generations of mana accelerators ranging from Lotus Petal, Lotus Blossom, Lotus Bloom, Gilded Lotus, and even the Blacker Lotus. There’s a Lotus Vale, a Lotus Guardian, and a Lotus Cobra. And if ‘Blacker Lotus’ wasn’t subtle enough humour for you, well, there’s even a Mox Lotus. All this derived from a single card.
Other cards, less iconic, have had their own impressive descendants, and two of these play a pivotal role in the deck we’re looking at today. The first of these is the humble Samite Healer, a 1/1 creature which taps to prevent damage. Over the course of the game, this fellow found find himself incarnated and reincarnated into all sorts of different forms, but all with the same core purpose: the prevention of wounds. He’d pop up in his original form as the Femeref Healer and the Clergy en-Vec, and led the way for cards ranging from the Abuna Acolyte to the Wojek Apothecary.
Today, however, we’re less concerned about the Samite Healer’s ability and more about his pedigree. Although Clerics are a staple trope in the fantasy realm that gave the original Magic much of its flavour, it may be somewhat surprising to discover that in all of Alpha, our friend Sammy is the only one of his kind. There are no Black Clerics, droning on about death and dark deeds (though we can presume the art for Sacrifice depicts one during a typical day at the office). Nor are there any Red ones, servants of some or other god of war, and the one Green one (Ley Druid) changed teams at one point and became a Druid (though, to be fair, he did start as a Cleric, and we’re not going to let him take anything away from the one guy who stayed true to his roots).
The other card which took root and sprouted further down the line in Onslaught was Illusionary Mask, one of the kookier cards in Garfield’s original design file. Although we’re reserving the full story for another time (when we circle back ’round again down the road and cover Legions, and more specifically Morph Mayhem), suffice it to say that that card single-handedly inspired the morph mechanic, which is also in play in today’s tribal Cleric deck.
Share Your Devotion
As a tribal deck, there isn’t a lot of mechanical identity to the deck- it’s not centered around a particular keyword. Instead, the deck draws its strength from having Clerics in play, as not unlike Slivers a number of Clerics draw strength from having their brethren around them. Towards that end, many of the deck’s creatures are supporting cards, Clerics with minor abilities that are included by dint of their creature type.
For instance, look at the opening trio of one-drop Foothill Guides. A 1/1 with morph and protection from Goblins, there isn’t a lot to recommend him outside of Goblin-rich environments. Still, it’s a cheap Cleric that helps up your count of Clerics on the battlefield.
Next we find a reprint from Urza’s Saga in the Disciple of Grace, a 1/2 with protection from Black and cycling. Intriguingly, the kindred card from that set, the Disciple of Law, did not get reprinted. Instead, a new version was created as an opposite in the Disciple of Malice. For whatever reason, the deck offers you two of the former but a full playset of the latter.
Here you also find a singleton copy of the Headhunter, a morph creature with a Specter’s saboteur ability. This is one morph creature that makes for a very unpleasant surprise for your opponent, since you can unmorph it after it gets through for maximum impact. Lastly, we find a pair of Battlefield Medics, the first card thus far with tribal synergy. A remade Samite Healer, the Medic’s ability to heal is in direct proportion to how much you’ve been able to flood the board with the deck’s signature tribe.
Further Clerical shenanigans are on offer with the Cabal Archon, as we move another rung up the ladder to the three-drops. The Archon let’s you cash in your Clerics for a Syphon Life effect, and is one of the deck’s more formidable closing options. Giving it the aspect of a sacrifice deck, you can cash in your creatures to finish off a wounded opponent. The other card here returns to the healing path with the Daru Healer. Although the Healer’s damage prevention isn’t quite as robust as the Medic’s, it packs an extra point of toughness and can be morphed away until needed as a surprise combat trick.
The four-drop slot presents us with a couple of the deck’s more exciting options. The Doubtless One’s power and toughness are each equal to the number of Clerics you’ve managed to field, so if you’ve flooded the board it can be quite a bargain indeed. In addition, its lifelink ensures you a steady extra supply of life to replace anything you’ve lost as you’ve built your army. The other card is a Cabal Executioner, a saboteur in the vein of the Headhunter. Instead of forcing a discard, though, the Executioner hits even harder by forcing your opponent to sacrifice a creature. At four mana this isn’t cheap, but it’s still only half of what it costs to morph and then unmorph it to sneak it past enemy lines.
Our first rare card appears at the top of the curve with the Gangrenous Goliath. A five-mana 4/4 isn’t the most impressive card in the game, but its ability to keep coming back from the graveyard can give you superior value since the tapping of three other Clerics can be done at the end of your opponent’s turn. Next is the Daunting Defender, a 3/3 with a very useful passive ability, adding to the longevity of your Clerical corps. Finally, the Aven Soulgazer gives you a touch of evasion in the air in the form of another 3/3 body, along with a unique activated ability. For three mana, the Soulgazer lets you peek at any face-down creature in the game. And just in case your opponent then tries to ‘shuffle’ their morph creatures around a bit to try and muddy the waters, the following passage from Onslaught’s morph rules FAQ should prove illuminating:
You have to make sure that your opponent knows what order they came into play. The best way to do this is to mark them with dice. You can’t shuffle them around, or do anything else to try to confuse your opponent. No “Three-Card Monte before blockers are declared.” Such actions are punishable quite heavily in sanctioned events…
The Hum of the Universe
The rest of the deck is largely devoted to a very strong removal package, to keep your opponent’s beaters from gaining traction in the red zone. First up is a pair of Pacifisms, a card that needs little explanation. Originally seeing print in Mirage, it did its job so well that it was invited back for each of the successive two large sets before rotating out until Onslaught.
Next up is Smother, another card we’ve seen before. This time it’s an Onslaught original, but one that was brought back for Worldwake many years later. Smother is fairly pinpoint removal for weenies, but if your opponent is playing a large number of them you’ll be heartened to know that there’s also a pair of Swats (an Urza’s Legacy reprint). Should they prove redundant, however, they can always be cycled away for the chance at something better.
Against larger creatures, you have some recourse with a singleton Death Pulse. In addition to giving you the option to take down something the size of a Serra Angel, you can cycle it for a new card and still obtain a marginal effect, giving another creature -1/-1 instead of -4/-4. Finally, a pair of Profane Prayers is a new take on Corrupt, the classic Black finishing option. Rather than dishing out damage based on the number of Swamps, though, this one looks at the number of Clerics you have in play. Often you’ll be able to steal in for early damage with the Clerics, then use this to get your opponent within finishing distance of your Cabal Archon.
Aside from remova, there are three other cards available here to help support your tribe. Akroma’s Blessing is an instant that gives your creatures protection from the colour of your choice, just the thing to get in one last alpha strike with your side. Astral Slide keys off the set’s cycling mechanic to let you flicker a creature. This is optimally used to get more mileage out of enters-the-battlefield creatures, but alas here there are none. Instead, you can use it to clear out one of your opponent’s creatures so they’re down a blocker when you attack, or prevent their best beater from attacking with a timely cycle. Overall, though, the card is a bit of a miss here given its limited application.
The final card is the deck’s second rare, Sigil of the New Dawn. This enchantment gives you the opportunity to return a creature from your graveyard to your hand, with the caveat that you must activate it when the creature dies or lose the opportunity. You can’t wait a turn to use it when you have the mana available. If you’re able to keep mana up for it without unduly impacting your game plan, you can get some very useful card advantage out of the Sigil, though it’s a touch on the pricey side.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to reflect on the deck’s nonbasic lands. In addition to the cycling lands- a full playset each of Barren Moors and Secluded Steppes, just the thing to help with your Astral Slide- you also have a Starlit Sanctum. The Sanctum is a useful and inexpensive way to get added value out of your Clerics. Although not as potent as the Cabal Archon, it does present a useful extra option for giving your deck some reach across the battlefield, and it’s very useful for finding one last purpose for a Cleric who is already on the way out (removal, chump-blocking, etc).
And there you have it! Don’t forget that we’re giving away a copy of this deck for our Onslaught Giveaway. We’ll be back in two days with the playtest and final score!