Portal Second Age: Spellweaver Review (Part 1 of 2)
In our previous looks at the dredge mechanic, first introduced for the Golgari guild in Ravnica: City of Guilds, we noted that of the many strengths of the mechanic, one of its weaknesses was that a pilot had to balance the need to kick off the dredge engine with the need to develop their manabase, leading to a particular tension between the two critical objectives. This was more of a pervasive weakness in the preconstructed versions of the Golgari decks, since anyone running it in constructed had access to Life from the Loam, a card created specifically to bridge the gap between these two divergent necessities.
Wizards did themselves one step further a few years later in Future Sight. As part of Time Spiral block, all sorts of zany mischief, callbacks, in-jokes, and subtle homages to the long and storied history of Magic found their way into print. One of the set’s more intriguing cycles was a series of lands at uncommon, one for each colour (and one colourless). In addition to providing the appropriate type of mana, these also each brought back a keyworded ability from Magic’s past- most of these from Ravnica block. The signature mechanic of the Rakdos, hellbent, was reincarnated on Keldon Megaliths, giving the handless players some on-board damage output. Llanowar Reborn was a one-shot deal thanks to its graft 1, calling back the signature mechanic of the Simic guild. The Dimir’s transmute mechanic featured on Tolaria West, scry broke the “all-Ravnican” streak on New Benalia… and dredge finally for its land on Dakmor Salvage.
Dakmor… now where have we heard that name before?
Much like 1994’s Fallen Empires set, the setting for Portal Second Age was a heretofore unrevealed island on Dominaria named Caliman, filled with a number of different civilisations with varying degrees of interaction. Where Fallen Empires depicted the decline of advanced societies under the press of newer ones, Portal Second Age had a more straightforward tale. Once more we find a world in miniature with each colour of Magic represented by a society. Norwood Forest represented Green, and was peopled with Elves. The Mountain ranges were filled with Goblins. Talas was a mercantilist and coastal nation, as befits Blue. What gives the set its direction, however, is the conflict between the final two- the Nightstalkers of Dakmor Swamp and the White-centered Humans of Alaborn.
Today’s deck, Spellweaver, represents the nation of Talas. Although a lesser player in the loose storyline that connects Portal Second Age, it’s a peek at an interesting society which appears to reimagine a maritime/mercantilist society in the fashion of North Africa. The deck itself fuses elements of both control as well as the traditional Skies-based aggression.
From Time, Knowledge
The deck begins with a raft of two-drops to get things started. The Talas Scout is a 1/2 with flying, and the deck offers you a trio of them. You also get a pair of Talas Explorers, which have a point less of toughness but give you a free peek at your opponent’s hand. This is entirely to the benefit of your countermagic suite, letting you know what threats you need to be aware of so that you can make more informed decisions with your counters. This also shows the deck’s commitment to an aerial presence, but it doesn’t go all-in on the tactic. A trio of Talas Merchants offer you some stopping power on the ground thanks to their 3 toughness. Those wondering how a mere Merchant could pack such stopping power might be heartened to learn that they have become reclassified as Pirates in Gatherer. Then again, perhaps not.
The three-drop slot, by comparison, is relatively threadbare. A single Talas Warrior is our first rare card- a reskinning of the classic Phantom Warrior– and it gives some added evasive power. Additionally, a pair of Apprentice Sorcerers sit uncomfortably within the Portal framework. Portal’s version of a ‘pinger’ like the Prodigal Sorcerer, the Portal rules structure cut instants out of the game almost entirely- those few that remain are in the guise of sorceries with unusual timing allowances (see: Mystic Denial). This was extended to the activated abilities of creatures as well, so what we’re left with is a pinger that can ping at sorcery speed before the attack phase. This means that one of a pinger’s more useful applications- picking off the critically injured- is denied it, and so its utility is greatly reduced. Still, the ping’s the thing, and the Sorcerer does offer a bit of range.
The Skies strategy is given some midrange power in the pair of Talas Air Ships, indicative of the Thran technology the Talas are said to sit atop of. A 3/2 body for four mana, they’re solid enough to get some damage through in the air, though they’re not the most durable. The deck gives you two copies.
From there, we arrive at the top of the curve where we find the deck’s second rare, the Talas Researcher. Now a ‘Human Pirate Wizard,’ the Researcher has the same timing limitation as the pinger- during your main phase, before your attack. Although you certainly pay for the privilege- it is five mana after all- the ability to draw an extra card every turn is a powerful one, and this will often be a welcome draw later in the game.
Finally, giving some backbone to your air force you also have a pair of Air Elementals here, 4/4 fliers also for five mana. This givs the deck a solid finisher to drop at the end of the game, and there are few things in the Portal Second Age environment that can stand up to one.
From Knowledge, Power
The single largest segment of the deck’s noncreature support is in its countermagic suite, consisting of a pair each of Mystic Denial and False Summoning. Mystic Denial- which would reappear later as Cancel– is a card that’s hit the trifecta, appearing in all three Portal releases (and nowhere else). False Summoning was an updated version of Remove Soul, the creature-countering card originally from Legends that would later be reglossed as Essence Scatter. And likely by strictest coincidence, both feature art from Tony DiTerlizzi, the artist who gave Dungeon’s & Dragons’ Planescape world such a unique flavour.
Removal gets a nod in a pair of Time Ebbs, but overall once a creature’s out onto the battlefield there won’t be much you can do about it. This is why the counters are so important- and even a piddling effect like the Talas Explorer gives you a little extra mileage here. You also have some card drawing in Touch of Brilliance, of which there are two copies.
The deck’s final card is a particularly nuisome one- Exhaustion. Another card printed in every Portal set, as well as Urza’s Saga, Starter 1999 and 9th Edition, it has the distinction of being an Expert-level set uncommon but a starter-set rare. Although it’s not quite a Time Walk for Portal (or, we should say, Temporal Manipulation), it has a similar effect by stalling out your opponent for a turn if you catch them with most of their resources committed.
Overall, the deck gives Talas its due, and we look forward to seeing it perform in battle. We’ll be back in two days’ time with a final rundown of how it played, and a final score.