Onslaught: Bait & Switch Review (Part 1 of 2)
“How did planeswalkers come to be if they weren’t planned?” wrote Mark Rosewater in a piece announcing the new card type leading up to the release of Lorwyn. “The way that many cool creative things come to be: by happy accident.” Originally, planeswalkers weren’t meant to be included in Lorwyn, but they were a confluence of two independent pressures. As it happens, they came together at the right time and place, and from that meeting the planeswalker was born.
The first pressure was marketing-focused. For some time Magic had struggled with the concept of the planeswalker. Originally designed as virtual demi-gods, the notion of omnipotent beings had never gained a lot of traction with players as there was very little for the player to relate to. They tended to be peripheral beings in the cards, and the better story-lines tended to center around more mortal struggles (such as the Weatherlight Saga). Marketing minds within Wizards rightly saw this as an opportunity missed- it’s hard to build a consistent creative brand when the worlds and characters change every year. As a result, there was some drive within the company to find a way to have a core ‘cast of characters’ recur from set to set, although at the time this wasn’t really thought of at the card level.
Meanwhile, R&D was in the midst of creating Future Sight. The third set of Time Spiral block, Future Sight was meant to represent ‘possible futures’ of the game of Magic, just as Time Spiral celebrated its past and Planar Chaos presented an alternate-reality present. Some of the cards designed for Future Sight were cards Wizards wanted to use as plants for future sets, such as the Boldwyr Intimidator. Others, like the Steamflogger Boss, were designed as ‘red herrings.’ These cards might never see reprinting, but provided tantalising hints of the possible directions the game could take down the road.
Inevitably, one of the ideas that came out of the Future Sight brainstorming sessions was the idea of a new card type, something completely different from what had been offered since the game’s inception. The unique nature of the set meant that virtually anything was possible- if the new card type was a bust, well, it was just something from some ‘possible future’ of Magic that never need be revisited.
As mentioned above, these two forces collided at the right time, and in a flash of inspiration Matt Cavotta made the fateful suggestion that solved both problems- there would be a new card type, and it would be planeswalkers. It didn’t take Wizards long to realise they’d found something worthwhile in the notion, however, and that planeswalkers could occupy more than just a one-off niche release in Future Sight. They were pulled from that file to allow for deeper design, and more time to get them right. As we now know, they were released in Lorwyn, and have been an immense success overall.
Obviously, planeswalkers were still a distant dream in 2002 with Onslaught, but our final look at the set reflects a not dissimilar origin. Sometimes good design is the result of careful planning and refinement. Other times, well, there’s an element of serendipity. Onsalught- and by extension the concept of a tribal set- came about from just such a moment. Onslaught was not originally concepted to be a set in which creature types were the central theme. Creature types were relevant in a supporting fashion, and as Rosewater relates the Mistform creatures were in the original design.
As he tells it, the Mistforms- which can pay mana to become the creature type of your choice until the end of the turn- begged an important question: what good is changing creature types, if creature types don’t matter? The results of that simple musing brought the “creature types matter” theme front and center, giving us Magic’s first fully tribal block.
Myth of Reality
The concept of Bait & Switch is a fairly straightforward one, even as the deck itself promises to be the most intricate of the four. Pack in a ton of creatures that can change their creature type, then mould that around a core of tribal cards that care about creature types. It might sound a bit convoluted, but we can break it down best by dividing all of the creatures into one of two buckets.
The shapeshifters are those cards that play fast and loose with creature types. With one exception- the Imagecrafter– these are all Mistform Illusions. We begin here with the Mistform Stalker. A two-mana 1/1, it has the customary Mistform ability of being able to temporarily change its creature type for . In addition, it can become a 3/3 flyer if you spend a bit more mana on it. This makes it quite adaptive to suit your needs, be it as a different creature type to combo off another effect, or just to have a midsize presence in the air.
Next up is the Mistform Dreamer. The Dreamer is a touch bigger than the Stalker and has flying built in. However, by way of tradeoff its power and toughness are fixed, and it has no secondary activated ability. The deck offers a trio of these, and an additional full playset of the next three-drop creature, the Mistform Wall. A sizable 1/4 body, the Wall also has no special abilities outwith the usual and customary for the Mistforms, but it’s worth noting that by changing the Wall’s creature type to anything other than Wall, it gains the ability to attack. Since this is a deck that appreciates the luxury of a little time to get its combo pieces in place, however, you’ll most often find them more valuable on defense.
Moving to the top of the curve, we find two more creatures here in the form of the Mistform Shrieker and Mutant. The Shrieker is another evasive body in the air, and it has the ability to be played as a morph. This isn’t especially relevant with your Mistforms, but as we’ll see you have a few sneaky options to give morph some bite. As a 3/3, it’s another solid option, while the Mistform Mutant is one point of toughness stronger. The Mutant offers a slight twist on the Mistform ability, being able to change the creature type of target creature whereas most other Mistforms only can change themselves.
Also in this class are a playset of Imagecrafters, one-drop 1/1 Wizards that can tap to do the same thing as the Mutant. Though it costs no mana to use, it’s a one-off effect where the Mutant’s is repeatable. Still, by this point you should have a fair idea of what this element of the deck is trying to do: play fast and loose with creature types. But towards what end?
That’s where the enablers come in. These are a class of creatures that offer bonuses to their ilk. Take, for starters, the Cabal Slaver. A humble 2/1 Cleric, he powers up any Goblins you have on the board, letting them compel a discard from your opponent whenever they deal them combat damage. Of course the deck doesn’t have any Goblins, but if you wait to see if any of your Mistform attackers get through you can then change their creature type to Goblin and get the discarding benefit!
Like Zombies instead? The Boneknitter lets you regenerate a Zombie- just the thing for saving one of your Mistforms from certain death. The Frightshroud Courier can give one of your “Zombies” +2/+2 and fear as well, letting them get in for added damage. The Ghosthelm Courier is cut of similar cloth, but instead it targets Wizards to give them shroud in addition to the power/toughness boost. In addition, there’s an Information Dealer that helps you dig into your library for the right card at the right time.
Finally, a singleton Fallen Cleric gives you a silver bullet against the Ivory Doom player. Though this undead fellow doesn’t offer much in the way of support to your Mistforms, it does give you another morph creature to help keep your use of the ability unpredictable.
Drown Your Prey
The noncreature support suite of Bait & Switch is as free-flowing as the deck itself, offering you a little bit of everything and a lot more tribal tricks. Let’s begin with the removal suite. A Misery Charm ordinarily would be quite narrow, as befits its single-mana casting cost. With an Imagecrafter or Mistform Mutant in play, however, it becomes a frighteningly efficient kill spell for any creature on the board. Simply change that creature into a Cleric, and blam! Electric crystal skull time!
Or let’s look at Feeding Frenzy. This one gives a creature -X/-X until end of turn, based upon how many Zombies you have in play. Naturally, with a few Mistforms in play this spell can grow to be quite lethal indeed. And though it might take a little engineering to optimise, Endemic Plague can be devastating against a tribal opponent. Thanks to your amorphous Illusions, you’ll always have just the creature type you need to sacrifice.
From there we have a few stock options in a Smother and trio of Swats. The latter has cycling, letting to pitch it away if it isn’t serving any purpose for you and drawing a fresh card. Although taken as a whole this isn’t the most consistent of removal packages, it does offer no small amount of versatility. One final card of note here is Peer Pressure, since we often consider Mind Control effects as two-for-one removal. Like Endemic Plague, it can take a little legwork to make work, but the deck gives you the versatility to make the card do some work for you as well.
The last four cards here defy classification, instead being a collection of one-shot effects. Ixidor’s Will gives you recourse to countermagic, albeit countermagic that cares very strongly about your Wizard population. Meanwhile, Mage’s Guile can help thwart removal from your opponent or beneficial spells for their own creatures, and cycles rather easily if your opponent is casting few targeted spells. The aptly-named Trickery Charm has three minor effects to choose from- one granting evasion, one playing around with creature types, and a bit of library manipulation. Crown of Suspicion, meanwhile, is an aura that grants a minor stats ‘boost’ of +2/-1, and can be sacrificed to give all your creatures of that type the same boost. Just the thing for helping your game-ending alpha strike get in for those last few critical points of damage, though overall a very clunky card.
Throw in a pair each of Barren Moor and Lonely Sandbar, and we have Bait & Switch! Decks that pack in no small amount of cleverness are a site favourite, and we’re eager to see how it lives up to its promise. Join us in two days’ time when we report back with our findings after taking it into battle.