Duels of the Planeswalkers (2009): Eyes of Shadow Review (Part 1 of 2)
In a broad sense, the word trope is used to describe a theme or concept that recurs across a type of creative work. It’s a relatively modern concept, but what it describes are spread across human culture and history. We touched upon this concept in examining Champions of Kamigawa, when Wizards was looking at using medieval Japan as a setting for a Magic set. In order to identify the concepts that would mot resonate with the intended audience- Magic players- members of Wizards polled themselves internally to see what ideas kept cropping up when considering the genre. The challenge of Kamigawa was that after the obvious choices- samurai and ninja- the obvious options rapidly diminished. Perhaps not coincidentally, outside of a dedicated Vorthos following the set was considered overall to be a creative disappointment.
One prominent trope that’s wound its way throughout the scope and breadth of humanity- well predating our samurai and ninja- is the concept of the femme fatale. The femme fatale is a woman who combines a powerful sexual allure with an element of danger, not unlike the sirens of Greek mythology. She captivates and bewitches, all for her own hidden purpose, and woebetide any who fall under her spell, for they seldom will emerge from the experience unscathed. At various times and places she has been embodied in the representation of figures as diverse as Lilith, Cleopatra, Salome, and Morgan le Fay… and more contemporarily as Marie Antoinette, Mata Hari, and- of course- as a staple character archetype in the film noir genre of cinema that flourished during the 1940’s and 50’s.
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that as Brady Dommermuth and the rest of Wizards’ creative team set about to crafting their initial slate of planeswalkers, the trope would again prove irresistible when considering who would become the Black ‘walker. Since her debut in Lorwyn, Liliana has gone on to become one of Magic’s more recoginisable faces, thanks in no small part to her prominent role in a number of Magic’s stories and tales. She was one of the two planeswalkers featured in the second planeswalker-themed Duel Deck, squaring off against her own personal nemesis Garruk. Like the other ‘walkers she’s appeared in her own webcomic stories, and featured in the novels Agents of Artifice (where she plays the femme fatale role to the hilt with the neophyte Jace) as well as Test of Metal.
A planeswalker before The Mending, Liliana’s exact age is unknown, but what is known is that she has existed for many years more than her appearance might indicate. Having forged a pact with a quartet of demons in return for the appearance of youth and power, Liliana toils on a quest to find the four of them and eliminate her debt by eliminating them. The first, Kothophed, was dispatched when she obtained an ancient and powerful artifact called the Chain Veil. Pursuit of the second brought Liliana to the world of Innistrad, seeking the demon Griselbrand. Undoubtedly the search for the concluding two are tales that have simply yet to unfold.
Liliana has been printed in three different versions. In her original, Liliana Vess, she carried with her a nice overview of typically Black effects. Her builder let you force a player to discard a card, while her middle ability functioned like a Vampiric Tutor– albeit one that hurts Liliana rather than you. For the ultimate, she summons forth all the denizens of every players’ graveyards, to surge forth from the grave and fight for her, giving her a nice synergy with her discard ability.
Innistrad brought with it a new printing, Liliana of the Veil. This time her discard effect hit everyone at the table, though given how much the set interacted with the graveyard this wasn’t always a drawback. Her middle ability was a Diabolic Edict, while her ultimate was rather unique: the unfortunate victim would see all of their permanents divided into two piles, and must choose which one to part with. A devil’s deal, indeed!
The most recent update came with Magic 2013 and Liliana of the Dark Realms. Best at home in a mono-Black supporting frame- an archetype not currently in vogue- she has languished somewhat, but for those who dream the dreams of mono-Black control she is indeed the very model of a femme fatale. Her builder has an effect you’d more often see in Green rather than Black- tutoring a land- but it strongly synergises with her remaining abilities. Her middle ability is repeatable kill, which gets more potent with every Swamp you have in play. For her ultimate, she calls back to the days when Black’s cup of mana was overflowing, with cards like Dark Ritual and Cabal Coffers. It’s a peculiar ultimate, one that does nothing to advance you closer to victory on its own, but can fuel just about anything you’d like to play.
For her Duels of the Planeswalkers incarnation, Wizards opted for a theme present in two of her three planeswalker cards: discard. A strategy that has been innately Black’s for as long as the game has been in existence, it represents the destroying of the mind of your opponent, a removal of one’s reason and will to resist. What better way to introduce the world to the wiles of Liliana Vess?
Dreams into Despair
When compared to some of the other Duels of the Planeswlaker decks, Eyes of Shadow tends to look a little light in the creature arena, and indeed many of their options either reinforce the deck’s overall theme of disruption and discard, or simply act as defensive options to buy time to get the discard engine on-line. This isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re looking to pound in with loads of fat beaters, this might not be the deck for you. The most important dimension of the deck is its discard package, with a full fourteen cards dedicated to its support. With such a cross-type strategy, we’ll begin with a look at that rather than the more usual breakdown into creatures and noncrreatures.
This is a deck that wants to keep your opponent’s hand hemorrhaging into the graveyard. This both decreases the number of options they have to bring to bear against you, while also being an avenue for damage with several supporting permanents. The first of these is the classic discard enchantment, Megrim. First introduced in Stronghold, it has formed the backbone for many’s the discard deck since, though was recently given a strictly better upgrade in the form of Liliana’s Caress in Magic 2011. Eyes of Shadow gives you only two, so seeing them is by no means certain, but they’re a priority play when they turn up in your draw.
The other enabler here answers the age-old question of what the deck does when an opponent runs out of cards. Thanks to two copies of The Rack, Eyes of Shadow can punish your opponent with or without a hand of cards. Add into that a pair of Underworld Dreams, and a great deal of the deck’s offensive power revolves around cards your opponent hasn’t even had a chance to play yet.
With that structure in place, the rest of the disruption package focuses directly on plucking cards from the hand of your opponent. Mind Rot is a classic that has withstood the test of time, representing a discard effect that has evolved to find a fair cost (sorry, Hymn to Tourach). The deck gives you a full playset here, and a further four copies of Ravenous Rats. Sure the 1/1 body isn’t all that great, but it does offer a two-for-one effect that sees your opponent down a card. Not enough discard for your liking? Well then, how about a pair of Abyssal Specters? Hard-to-block 2/3’s that set your opponent back a card with each swing, left unchecked these can severely constrain your opponent who will often play themselves down to no cards in hand as a natural response. That might deny your getting the most from your Specter, but it also denies them that most critical of resources- options.
Evil is Eternal
Of course, your opponent is unlikely to sit still and just let you assemble your denial engine, and will very likely be sending representatives across the red zone to talk some sense into you. Although the Rats and Specters are useful, they can only do so much to hold back the tide. That’s where the rest of your creatures come into play.
For one thing, Eyes of Shadow give you a full playset of Drudge Skeletons, pesky regenerators that can blunt the threat of your opponent’s best non-trampling ground-based beater. A pair of Dusk Imps offer you some cheap presence in the air as well, and their 2 power is helpful in pressing in for damage if you find your opponent vulnerable. The twin Severed Legions present much the same, swapping fear for flight.
Like any good control-style deck, Eyes of Shadow banks on a solid closer to see out the game once it has the game state where it wants it. In this case, that means a Sengir Vampire and a Nightmare. Both of these have evasion, meaning they’ll be difficult for your opponent to deal with. This being a mono-coloured deck, that means the Nightmare in particular is guaranteed to be a 6/6 when you summon it, which is a very good deal in this colour.
Dark Places of the Heart
Supplementing the discard core and creature shell is a suite of noncreature spells. First up is the removal package. This is a little less robust than you’d usually expect to see, since the deck expects that many of your opponent’s worst threats will be stillborn through discard rather than having to be dealt with in play. A trio of Terrors gives you cheap kill at instant speed, while a pair of Consume Spirits are a little more cumbersome- but substantially more flexible. Since you can target players with them, they also act as finishing moves in the deck once you’ve managed to beat your opponent to within striking range. Like the Nightmare, it’s a card that truly thrives in a mono-Black deck and is a welcome sight.
Straddling the line between removal and combat trick is Final Revels, a card from Lorwyn. A bi-modal card, you can either pump creatures for +2/+0, or nail them for -0/-2. The important thing to note is that this affects all creatures, yours as well as your opponent’s, so you’ll want to be sure to choose wisely.
Next up are a pair of Unholy Strengths. These aren’t the best cards in the deck by a mile, given the inherent and oft-proclaimed weakness in creature auras, but they can be conditionally useful. Sticking one to a Severed Legion, for instance, can greatly hasten the outcome of the game. It can also give your Dusk Imp a little more presence on the battlefield, or turn a Drudge Skeleton from nuisance to menace for any would-be attackers.
The last card is Raise Dead, a simple staple in Black since the game’s earliest days. Should plans go awry and one of your more critical creatures succumb to the pressures of your opponent, it’s nice to know that you can give them a second chance to redeem themselves.
Overall, given the historical pride of place discard decks have had in our playgroup, we’re very much
dreading looking forward to testing out the digital version of Eyes of Shadow. We’ll be back in two days’ time to see how well it held up!