Portal Second Age: The Nightstalkers Review (Part 1 of 2)
There isn’t a great deal to get folks riled up in Magic’s introductory releases. The cards tend to be fairly low-key and introductory-level, though here and there you find a few that have broken out into general competitive play and command a pricetag to match (see: Grim Tutor). Indeed, you might almost say the most notable thing about Magic’s attempts at beginner-level versions of the game is that they aren’t all that notable. This isn’t meant to be unkind, but they are competing for attention in a richer, more dynamic environment and outside the circle of Magic’s Armchair Historian Society (of which we’re a proud, card-carrying member), there’s just little to keep them in the public eye.
But Portal Second Age attained a bit of notoriety for a most unlikely reason. When looking back at outcry over aspects of the game, they tend to be most often clustered around specific cards, like Blightsteel Colossus, or decks, like Ravager Affinity back in the original Mirrodin block, or the “Black Summer” of Necropotence. It’s not often that you hear of controversy over the artwork or flavour of a particular card, though it’s not without precedent (see: Earthbind). For Portal Second Age, this was a problem not on a one-off card, but much further back in the creative process. Namely, this:
That’s right… guns! And in Dominaria, no less! To many, this represented an unwelcome incursion of the real into the realm of the fantastic. It wasn’t just that there were guns- that was bad enough- but to have them shoehorned into some newly-devised corner of the same world that all of early Magic took place upon seemed to many to be a grasping creative stretch. Sure, some of the firearms resembled magical devices, with glowing globes and arcane, twisting barrels. Clearly, however, some of them did not.
The decision to include guns in the flavour of the world of Portal Second Age was not a unanimous decision within Wizards, and it had its critics. When discussing his pronounced distaste of the card Power Armor and the “mechs” within Invasion block, Mark Rosewater once remarked, “the only thing in the history of Magic I despised more in the creative was the guns in Portal Second Age.” It’s worth noting that the creative team was the same for both sets. This was echoed by Aaron Forsythe during the Great Designer Search when he remarked about a contestant’s gun-themed Un-card in saying, “I hated the guns in Portal Second Age so much that I’d be loathe to revisit them, even in parody.”
As recently as the Wizards chat for Innistrad, creative director Brady Dommermuth gave two reasons for the lingering distaste. “Guns do alienate some (not all) fantasy fans, as well learned from Portal Second Age. [Secondly] I didn’t want to be accused of becoming more like WoW. I also just feel like they’re not needed — magic, arrows, and crossbow bolts do the job.”
The best-put reaction against the gun was voiced by flavour guru Doug Beyer in 2007. In response to another fan’s inquiry, he replied:
The biggest problem with guns is that they compete with magic for conceptual (and visual) space. A gun is a weapon that blasts a projectile at an enemy with explosive force. But so is a mage’s knowledge of a Fireball spell. Since Magic is a game of spell-casting wizards, anything that upstages the feeling that mages are the prime movers of the multiverse is going to get the official Creative Stinkeye.
The gun is deeply symbolic—it’s the dividing line in the technology of warfare, past which things just stop looking “fantasy.” On the one side of that line you have weapons like crossbows, ballistas, and catapults, that all feel right at home in fantasy, even though they are real-world, nonmagical machines. On the other side, you have—well, everything else. If you allow even basic muskets in your setting, then suddenly those elvish archers look a little under-equipped, and the mages look downright obsolete.
However, I’m never going to say never. It may be that some world deep in the Blind Eternities is undergoing an industrial revolution, whose engineers are working on the problem of how to kill their enemies by using more saltpeter than mana. Besides, magic and technology have certainly combined in Magic before—the Izzet are a prime example, as is the entire artificial world of Mirrodin. Magic is a game of eternally swinging pendulums—so who knows, maybe one day the time will be right for guns to make another appearance.
For fans of the gun in Magic, that’s the possibility of hope, at least, and you can’t hold out for much more than that. One might be less inclined to be hopeful, though, upon realising that about the only mention of the notion in the mothership tends to be in the negative. If there are any articles buried deep in the archives championing the boomstick, well, they’ve certainly escaped notice today.
Still, one cannot undo what has been done, and the gun lives on in Magic in no better place than in Dakmor Swamp, home to the Nightstalkers. According to the lore of the set, a decade ago the wicked sorceress Tojira set up a base of operations in the ruins of an ancient Thran city at the heart of the salt marshes. She then created the Nightstalkers to server her, forming them into raiding parties and expeditions in search of the ancient relics of the Thran, as well as slaves to labour in her service. Riding biomechanical steeds expertly adapted to traversing their marshy environment (and which display a commendable depiction consistency across multiple artists), the Nightstalker is never without a wicked deed in its heart… or a gun in its grip.
The Shadow Knows
The Nightstalkers is surely a contender for best-in-breed in the fairly pedestrian and flavourless Portal Second Age Environment. After seeing a lackluster Goblin Fire and vanilla-filled Nature’s Assault, this deck seems almost intricate by comparison. Each of the deck’s creatures has some sort of special ability, and many of them are enters-the-battleifield effects. Like Nature’s Assault, The Nightstalkers comes alive in the midgame, though it’s creatures tend to offset their abilities with smaller bodies. Still, there’s more than enough variety to give some real excitement to playing it- as well as one big tribally climactic effect in the noncreature support.
The deck opens with a pair of two-drops in the Lurking Nightstalker and Dakmor Bat. The Bat is the plainest of the deck’s beaters, being a simple 1/1 flyer, but in this environment such evasion must be rated even more highly. The Bat won’t pack a punch all at once, but it can get in for damage over time. The Lurking Nightstalker, on the other hand, can pack an outsize punch, as it gets +2/+0 on the inswing. Though the 1 toughness means it’s fairly brittle, it does push the pilot to adopt a fittingly aggressive stance for the deck.
The three-drop slot is a lonely one, with just the Raiding Nightstalker occupying it. A 2/2 with swampwalk, it’s on par with Scathe Zombies if your opponent isn’t playing Black- that is to say, in the pre-Walking Corpse era, about what you’d expect to pay. Things get considerably more exciting as we come upon the four-drops, however. A trio of Prowling Nightstalkers hope that your opponent isn’t playing Black, as their intimidate ability will let them be quite the persistent threat (as Sam proved in her clash against Nature’s Assault). The Abyssal Nightstalker has a Specter-like effect, forcing your opponent to discard a card from their hand if it deals damage to them in combat. The lack of evasion makes this a tougher prospect to realise, but the threat of it is one your opponent will have to take seriously, and plan accordingly.
If you’d rather not wait to get into the red zone for your discard, you also have a pair of five-drop Brutal Nightstalkers. These 3/2’s force your opponent to discard a card when summoned. Joining them is the Predatory Nightstalker, another 3/2 with a useful ETB effect. When summoned, your opponent must sacrifice a creature. That’s solid card advantage for the set, and although you can’t control which creature dies it certainly can put you ahead.
The final card- and the deck’s first rare- is the Nightstalker Engine. One of two cards in the deck that focus on Nightstalkers in your graveyard, it rewards you for playing to Black’s style- throwing away minions when they have outlived their usefulness in return for greater power. Even a late-drawn Lurking Nightstalker can be repurposed (after a suicidal attack) to feed thje machine, and it’s a potent one. Luckily, the Engine doesn’t care what sort of creature it is, so your Bats can help just as well as any other. Though the 3 toughness leaves it a little exposed, it can certainly pack a punch later in the game if you’ve been playing in an aggressive manner.
The Touch of Death
Given the relatively small stature of most of the deck’s creatures, it needs some assistance in ensuring they get through for damage. Consequently, much of the deck’s noncreature support is given over- refreshingly- to removal. First up is a pair of Cruel Edicts, which are inexpensive but untargeted effects that put your opponent down a creature. For one mana more, you get to pinpoint the victim with a Hand of Death, though it has the frequent “non-Black” requirement.
From there we also find a pair of Mind Rots, a classic discard staple still often seen in sets today (including Return to Ravnica). This offers a bit of disruption, and can help cement a favourable board state if you catch your opponent with their two last cards in hand. Should you find yourself a bit low, there’s also a copy of the rare Ancient Craving. A limited “life-for-cards” effect found so often in Black (see: Necropotence, Phyrexian Arena, Sign in Blood), 3 life will typically be a small price to pay for a shot in the arm that three cards can bring you.
it’s the deck’s final card, though, that’s potentially the most exciting. Return of the Nightstalkers is a tribal sorcery that is entirely useless outside of a Nightstalker-based deck. It brings all of your Nightstalkers into play from your graveyard for one more go-round at life. If you’ve been playing as the deck wants you too, by the time you can afford the steep mana cost you should already have a well-stocked pantry. The kicker here, though, is that the payment demanded isn’t just mana: you have to destroy all of your Swamps in play as well. In a midrange deck like this, that’s difficult to effectively recover from, giving this card an “all-in” feel where you either take the win or fall. It’s certainly one of Portal Second Age’s more unique offerings, and brings an extra element of power to the deck.
That’s all for now; we’ll next be taking the Nightstalkers and their guns into battle to see how well they hold up. We’ll be back in two days with a breakdown of their performance before giving a final rating. See you then!