Morningtide: Shamanism Review (Part 1 of 2)
So where were we? Ahh, right, the story of Morningtide is the story of Mirrodin. And Onslaught. And Lorwyn. But in a nutshell, it’s about one thing: class. Before unveiling the main course, though, let’s set the table first.
Lorwyn was the first set since the advent of the “block model” that came along and tweaked the approach. Rather than the traditional large set/small set/small set design structure that had reigned since 1996/1997’s Mirage block, Lorwyn was a two-set block that was mirrored in the successive two-set block, Shadowmoor. Why the change?
For one thing, it wasn’t entirely without precedent. For the previous five years, Magic players were well-accustomed to seeing four releases a year hit the shelves. Remember at this point in Magic’s development the Core Sets were coming out every other year, something which wouldn’t change until Magic 2010 was released the year after Lorwyn/Shadowmoor concluded its run. Wizards certainly doesn’t want long stretches of time where there’s no new product being released, so in years where there was no Core Set being released that left a hole to fill in the calendar. That ‘hole’ gave us sets like the silver-bordered ‘joke set’ Unhinged in 2004, as well as the 2006 ‘lost set’ of Coldsnap. As Mark Rosewater relates, that begged the question: why not a four-set block?
The first answer to that was obvious and negative.
I began my brainstorming assuming that it would be a four-set block, but the more I looked into it the more I realized the uphill battle I was fighting. Traditionally, with a few exceptions, we’ve struggled to stretch blocks out to three sets. Getting to four seemed next to impossible. So I asked myself if there was a way to have a four-set block that wasn’t four sets. This might sound like a crazy question, but it forced me to approach the problem from a different vantage point. I realized that there was a way. Instead of one four-set block, we could have two two-set blocks.
And so, two two-set blocks it was to be! But what to fill them with? We’ve already covered Lorwyn, which itself was the first tribal set since 2002’s Onslaught. But going back offered Wizards the opportunity to fix some of the shortcomings they’d perceived with the earlier model, and one of these went right to the idea of what race and tribes were all about.
At its earliest, Dungeons & Dragons amalgamated the concept of race and class. When you rolled your character, you could be a “Fighter” or a “Cleric,” or you could be an “Elf” or a “Dwarf.” It would take some maturing on the part of the game design to break this continuum into its two logical components: who you were (Human, Elf, Dwarf, etc), and what you did (Fighter, Cleric, Mage, etc). By the time Wizards was wrestling with the issue, this was already the de facto game standard. How then could this be best represented in the game of Magic?
This was a question that Wizards had started asking itself right around the design of 2003’s Mirrodin. Though they had missed an opportunity with the passing of the tribal Onslaught block, Mirrodin stands as the first set to make full use of creature types to indicate both race and class. When the chance came around again to revisit the tribal mechanic, flexing this newfound creative muscle seemed like a slam-dunk. Once they got to the planning stages of Lorwyn, however, things didn’t seem quite so easy.
For one thing, they were constrained by the amount of space they had to work with in the first place. Rosewater felt that there should be an equal number of races and classes, to provide a bit of balance between the two concepts. The problem was, once R&D and creative had taken their first pass through the world that would become Lorwyn, there was a feeling of having settled upon eight races to give the world its definition. This was a problem, of course, since a further eight classes was render the whole thing unsustainably crowded, and likely stretch the concept too thin.
The solution was a rather elegant one: split the race and class emphasis into two different sets. Lorwyn would set the stage with its tribes, giving the world texture and definition, then Morningtide would follow up by caring about what roles the individual creatures played in the world itself. By being relegated to the smaller set, class would have a smaller space to grow in, but it would integrate with the tribes of Lorwyn without competing for the same space.
From Seed to Sapling to Sentience
In our last review, Going Rogue, we talked about the less-common deck archetypes occasionally seen in Magic. Rogue drew its strategy from an evasion/sabotage playbook, and today we’re looking at an incremental advantage deck. These decks are ones that inch ahead of their opponent by degrees, which add up over the course of a game to put the deck ahead of its opponent. A great example of this might be the Squeaking Pie Grubfellows, one of the deck’s four-drops. Thanks to kinship, you have the opportunity to force your opponent to discard a card from their hand each turn. It’s not always going to hit- only 40% of the cards in the deck will trigger it- but when it does it essentially puts you up a card. Shamanism is full of such effects, but the downside is that it takes some time to get the deck’s advantage engine going.
Some of the deck’s early plays look to help remedy that. The Bosk Banneret does some good work here, giving you an early defender that can withstand most of your opponent’s two-drops and make your successive plays cheaper to cast. It’s perfectly positioned to do the most good, and the deck rewards you with a trio of them. We also see another incremental advantage card in the Wolf-Skull Shaman, a 2/2 which offers you the possibility of a free 2/2 Wolf token each turn. Played early enough, over the course of a game that can really add up. A pair of Woodland Changelings act as the joker in the deck, helping trigger effects such as the Wolf-Skull Shaman or anything else that relies upon a creature type.
We find another Changeling in amongst the deck’s three-drops with the Moonglove Changeling. A 2/2 body with activateable deathtouch– an ability introduced in Future Sight as a plant for Lorwyn- this Changeling can be a nuisance attacker and a very potent defensive threat. You also find her a couple of Gilt-Leaf Seers, which let you tinker with the top of your library. It doesn’t seem a huge advantage, but there’s something else at work here. Another way that Shamanism looks to add to its tally of advantage is by squeezing every bit of value out of clash cards, since the effects are often a bargain for their cost if you win it. Thus, see the Seer less as a draw quality library manipulator, and more of a clash enabler.
Moving up to the four-drops, the deck starts to blossom here after all the setting up. First is the Bog-Strider Ash which, like most Treefolk, have a comparatively high toughness. The Bog-Strider has a very narrow evasion in swampwalk, but more importantly it offers you lifegain whenever a player- any player- plays a Goblin spell. Although that seems narrow as well on the face of it, it’s a bit broader than it seems. For one thing, Shamanism itself runs a couple of Goblins in the Squeaking Pie Grubfellows. Additionally, most every deck in the environment (this one included) carries a few Changelings, which are every bit the Goblin a Goblin is. 2 life isn’t going to take the game for you, but remember this deck is all about small advantages compounded atop one another, and it certainly has its part to play.
Same goes for the aforementioned Grubfellows. Thanks to kinship, these let you hit out at your opponent’s hand- a potent advantage. Also taking advantage of kinship is the deck’s first rare card, the Leaf-Crowned Elder. Mark Rosewater’s first preview card for Morningtide, the Elder has a superb ability- playing your cards for free! Sure, it has to be either a Treefolk or Shaman, but the potential savings here is superb. When we reviewed Ears of the Elves for Duels of the Planeswalkers (2009), we noted that the deck had a lot of setup, and two cards that could immediately pivot the deck into offensive mode (Overrun, Coat of Arms). Although the impact is not as immediate, the value the Elder can offer you plays a similar role here- it can, in effect, more than double your mana base.
Given the high casting cost of the top of the curve, that’s a very good thing indeed. The cheapest of these top-of-curve inhabitants is the Everbark Shaman. Like the Elder it’s a 3/5, but this Shaman has a rather unique (and deeply flavourful) ramping ability, letting you exchange a dead Treefolk in the graveyard for new life on the battlefield. Not only does this accelerate your manabase development, it helps improve draw quality by thinning out your library. Of course, its impact should not be overstated- there’s not a lot you’re ramping to early with this guy, since you’ll typically be playing it no earlier than turn five, but of course then you’ll have those games where you’ve fielded a couple of Bannerets and cheated him out earlier still.
The reward for this work, of course, is to help you bring out your most expensive Treefolk. The deck also has a pair of Orchard Wardens, your biggest beaters weighing in at 4/6. These also reinforce the overall theme of the deck, rewarding you with a tidy packet of life again and again for each creature you summon. Like the best lifegain, this is incendental- in other words, it’s not central to the card’s function, and you’ll never turn down a very relevant 4/6 body. From there we come across the odd Black Treefolk in the Thorntooth Witch. The Witch isn’t cheap at six mana, but her triggered ability is superb here. A +3/-3 “bonus” can repeatedly kill off your opponent’s smaller or midsize threats and annoyances, but it’s also nicely sized to act as a boost for most of your Treefolk as well. It’s not without risk, of course- even your Orchard Warden would be a potentially vulnerable 7/3 after a sip from the Witch’s “warm brew,” but having the versatility to choose between modes is huge. Used offensively, it turns each of your Treefolk into a two-for-one, putting you ahead as your opponent slips further and further behind.
Finally, we come to the Guardian of Cloverdell, which costs a hefty seven mana. For that, though, you’re getting seven power spread out across four different bodies. Although that’s useful, it doesn’t really synergise with anything else in the deck (outwith being another Treefolk, of course). The trio of 1/1 Kithkin have their uses (not least being eaten for life by the Guardian if need be), but there’s no Overrun-type effect here that makes these token creatures all that relevant, and nothing that cares about “Kithkin” or “Soldiers.” Taking its massive pricetag on board, this is probably a card the deck could do just as well without (though those looking for a silver lining will note that it should win you just about any clash it appears in).
Waiting to Rise
The noncreature supporting suite for Shamanism is particularly diverse, consisting as it does of sixteen cards. The most consistent of these is the removal package, which draws upon all three colours of the deck. White offers us the best of the lot with a singleton Oblivion Ring (in Lorwyn at common). This is easily the best of the lot given its versatility at removing most any threat you could face from the game. Black gives us a trio of Nameless Inversions, which renders a similar effect to the “brew” of the Thorntooth Witch. In addition to the +3/-3 effct, it also removes all creature types from the target, which will occasionally be relevant. In addition, as a Shapeshifter tribal instant, this can trigger some of your kinship effects as well. Finally, Green offers a pair of Lignifies, which can neutralise an opponent’s best creature at the cost of giving them a sturdy blocker. It’s not great, but for Green you generally can’t expect to get much here.
From there, the effects become considerably less predictable. There’s a bit of mana ramp in a pair of Wanderer’s Twigs, which is little more than cheap (if useful) mana fixing. It’s joined by a couple of Recross the Paths, which features the new twist on the clash mechanic offered by Morningtide by returning to your hand if you win. Given the cost of many of your Treefolk, that’s a useful ability to have.
Two other cards in the deck are from the same cycle as Recross the Path: Redeem the Lost and Revive the Fallen. Like Recross, both of these take a staple on-colour effect and recast it. The White spell offers one of your creatures protection from a colour, useful for thwarting removal or helping one of your creatures in the red zone. Should you lose one of your more useful allies, the Black spell can return it from graveyard to hand. Both offer the promise of extra value if you win the clash. For even more such value, there’s a copy of Sylvan Echoes here. This is a very narrow card that does one thing, but does it fairly well. You’ll have to win one clash with it in play just to break even, though, begging the question of just how useful it could be in a deck with only four clash cards in it (hint: not very).
Joining it in the pile of less-welcome cards is Luminescent Rain. We’d mentioned above how incidental lifegain on an effect you already want is the generally optimal. Less helpful, though, are those cards dedicated to lifegain and nothing else. Rain is precisely just such a card. Gaining two life for each permanent of a particular creature type is nice, but you’re just as likely to get that much life back in aggregate from an Orchard Warden, and unlike Luminescent Rain, the Warden actually helps you to win.
The deck’s last two cards are much more tantalising. The Thornbite Staff is one of a cycle of class-specific artifacts (Going Rogue featured Cloak and Dagger), which turns one of your creatures into a pinger. The ability to use it multiple times a turn (depending on how often something dies) is very useful, but tempered substantially by the high activation cost of two mana. Still, giving the deck reach across the table to damage your opponent is highly useful, and the card is a welcome addition.
The last card is the deck’s second rare, Reach of Branches. This one can offer you tremendous value, giving you a very relevant body each time you cast it. By the time you can cast it you’re like as not going to be out of Forests in hand, which means you’ll be able to play it on average every third turn or so. Of course, cards like Recross the Paths, Wanderer’s Twig, and Everbark Shaman have ways to accelerate the process, and on every level- flavour as well as mechanics- it’s a great inclusion in Shamanism.
The deck’s land suite is largely basic, as is the case with most preconstructed offerings, though a pair of Vivid Groves deserve mention. This is the one three-colour deck in a set of two-colour constructions, so a little assistance can go a long way. That said, it does make one wonder if the splash of White is really necessary, given that it’s only including two cards (Oblivion Ring, Redeem the Lost)- and only one of those being top-tier.
That’s all for now, we’ll be back in two days to report on how well the deck did in playtesting. See you then!