Morningtide: Battalion Review (Part 1 of 2)
A beginning, narrates Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) at the start of the epic 1994 motion picture Dune, is a very delicate time. This was true in the film as it can be in life, and that certainly applies to Magic: the Gathering. One can only wonder at all the directions that the game might have taken in those earliest days that might have derailed its success. On a smaller scope, we find a new beginning each year with the Autumn large set, kicking off a new block with new cards, new themes, and new mechanics- and sometimes even more.
2007’s Lorwyn accomplished this through an innovative tweaking of the block structure. Rather than follow the established pattern of large set/small set/small set, Lorwyn kicked off what in essence was a four-set superblock, consisting of two blocks each made up of two sets (one large, one small). It would be followed up by Morningtide before moving over to Shadowmoor/Eventide, which was on the same narrative spectrum but with a new palette of themes and mechanics.
One of the more intriguing aspects of block development is seeing how, having survived this ‘very difficult time’ of introduction, the set is allowed to grow and develop. We’ve already seen the largest of these shifts in the move from a race-based tribal landscape to one which also considers class. Lorwyn’s five Theme Decks highlighted Kithkin, Merfolk, Goblins, Elementals, and Elves, but what these individual members of the tribe actually did wasn’t a factor. With the advancement of Morningtide, each individual’s class (Wizard, Shaman, Warrior, Soldier, and Rogue) attained an equal prominence, and the four decks from the set highlight these changes (sadly, the Wizards class missed out).
This was the largest change, but hardly the only one. Some of the other obvious updates involved the introduction of new mechanics. Rogues were given the prowl mechanic, rewarding them for eluding an opponent’s defenses. Reinforce gave White, Red, and Green (the colours that didn’t get prowl) the ability to convert cards into +1/+1 counters for a creature at instant speed. Kinship further rewarded tribal-themed decks, giving an added bonus for decks heavily populated with the appropriate creature and/or class types.
In addition, existing mechanics from Lorwyn were tweaked. Champion now let you pick creatures of a particular type or class, as seen on Unstoppable Ash. Evoke was reworked to trigger on the creature leaving play rather than entering it. And a buyback variant was introduced on a cycle of clash cards that returned them to hand if you won the clash, such as Redeem the Lost. The first set may be where the tableau is laid out, but some of the most interesting (and most overlooked) developments in the game are the small evolutions that take place in the move to the second. Morningtide was certainly no exception, as we’ll see with today’s deck.
In our last two reviews, we’ve looked at the strategies held by each of the decks and how they’re drawn from less common stock. Today’s deck eschews all that, and instead looks for inspiration from the tried and true. Although a two-colour deck, the foundation of these sixty cards is very much White weenie, from the quick ground game to the aerial secondary attack plan.
First up is the Mosquito Guard, a Tundra Wolves with an added plus. Thanks to Morningtide’s new reinforce mechanic, you can pitch the Guard to put a +1/+1 counter on another creature. This is a great trade-off, and well-priced here. Although spending a card to put a +1/+1 counter on a creature can risk putting too many eggs in one basket, since you’re just one kill card away from getting two-for-one’d, it helps make the humble Guard more relevant in the late game. That’s the eternal trade-off with low-costed creatures. For decks that want them, you want a lot of them, the better to maximise your chances of having one in your opening hand. By the same token, that same need for numbers also increases the likelihood that you’ll draw them later in the game, when they’re much less useful. Reinforce headges against that eventuality by giving the Guard another purpose.
While you only get one copy of the Guard in this particular case, you do get a trio of Cenn’s Tacticians. Another 1/1, the Tactician is a +1/+1 counter generating machine, and she does so fairly inexpensively. As part of the cycle of creatures that includes Oona’s Blackguard and the Bramblewood Paragon, the Tactician brings an added perk to any of your creatures that you’ve managed to stick a counter onto. Unfortunately, it’s perhaps the weakest of the lot, letting your eligible creatures block an additional creature. This is only really useful on the defense, and that’s not what this deck will be wanting to do a lot of. You might conclude that this is a labour-saver, that having less blockers means having more attackers, but the smaller size of the creatures in the deck means that this sort of double-blocking will be a fatal assignment for the creature so chosen. The upside, though, is that while you don’t get to automatically assign counters (as with the others of this cycle), you can put them on deliberately, and give one creature multiple counters.
Lastly, there are two more one-drops here in the Mothdust Changelings. The Changeling has a useful trick, the ability to become evasive, though it does require the assistance of another creature. As we’ve seen in the other decks, however, the Changelings also fill the role of the “joker” or “wild card,” helping turn on all sorts of tribal effects and bonuses.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find a pair of Kinsbaile Skirmishers leading us off. A simple 2/2 vanilla with an enters-the-battlefield one-shit effect, the Skirmishers give a single creature a temporary +1/+1 bonus. It’s a useful combat trick, even if its sorcery speed keeps it from being a truly surprising one. Also here is the Ballyrush Banneret, part of another cycle of creatures in Morningtide. The Bannerets reinforce the tribal theme of the set by discounting all creatures of the selected race and class combination. In this case, that’s Kithkin and Soldiers. They’re useful, though arguably less vital than they were in Shamanism, which had a lot of very expensive cards. Still, that discount can be the difference between playing one and playing two creatures in a turn, and every little helps.
Now into the three-drops, we find another tribal card in the Kithkin Zephyrnaut. Thanks to kinship, the Zephyrnaut can grow from a 2/2 on the ground to a 4/4 flying, vigilant beater that’s still going to be around to defend you (albeit as a 2/2). It’s a superb ability, though tempered somewhat by the fact that less than one-third of the deck’s cards will trigger it. For maximum impact, the Zephyrnaut demands more homogeneity than is on display here, where Kithkin mingle alongside Faerie and Merfolk.
For a more permanent aerial presence, there’s a pair of Burrenton Bombardiers. A 2/2, these give you another shot at the reinforce mechanic, adding a pair of +1/+1 counters for three mana. This is fairly strong, particularly considering that you can take advantage of the ability at instant speed. The final three-drop here is the deck’s first rare card, the Preeminent Captain. The Captain is to Solders what Kaalia of the Vast is to Demons, Dragons, and Angels- a fast way to cheat something into play with immediate impact, without having to worry about its pricetag. Of course, Demons, Dragons, and Angels cost considerably more than your Soldiers in Battalion do, so it’s not nearly as potent an ability, but it’s still incremental advantage that can put you ahead of your opponent.
Thus far it’s been nearly all Kithkin, but as we move to the deck’s high density of four-drops we begin to see the other tribes emerge, all with the common theme of being Soldiers. The Fae get a nod with the Sentinels of Glen Elendra and Fencer Clique, with the deck offering a pair of each. The Sentinels are a surprise blocker or attacker, thanks to their flash and flying. The Fencer Clique, on the other hand, has a different kind of trickery all its own- the ability to retreat to the top of your library. This is a fine way to save it from certain demise, but otherwise has little impact on your board, though it may not always be a card you’ll feel great about saving.
We find a representative from the Merfolk here in the Veteran of the Depths. Like the Captain, this is a card that rewards you for aggressive play, and it gets to come in on its first attack as a 3/3. Should the ground game get congested, it also makes a fine partner to the Mothdust Changeling. Speaking of Changelings, we have another here as well in the Turtleshell model. Foreshadowing the Calcite Snapper (the famous “convertible turtle“), this Changeling also can swap its 1/4 power and toughness for a turn- though for the cost of two mana.
Finally we arrive at the top of the mana curve, where the last four creatures of the deck reside. First up is a pair of Inkfathom Divers, a 3/3 islandwalker with a Sage Owl-type effect- certainly something that Zephyrnaut would be happy to see if it meant pulling more Kithkin to the top of the library. There is one final Kithkin here as well, the Burrenton Shield-Bearers. Another Soldier with an attack trigger, these give one of your creatures a hefty cushion of toughness.
The deck’s final creature- and other rare- is the Reveillark. A much-appreciated combo deck enabler, the Reveillark has a rather more pedestrian role here, since given the lack of any other recursion it’s a one-shot deal. Still, it’s a very strong ability since it puts both creatures onto the battlefield rather than into your hand (which already would have been fine), and the restriction on power still allows you to retrieve most anything that has found its way into your graveyard. Perhaps overshadowed by its trickery is the fact that pound for pound this is the most solid beater in the deck, a 4-power flier. If all that wasn’t enough, it also can be used with evoke if you simply need to dig into your graveyard, though playing the creature will be the correct play most of the time.
Waiting to Rise
With the lions share of the deck consisting of creatures, there’s not a ton of room left over for noncreature support. The removal package is lamentably small, consisting mainly of a pair of Oblivion Rings and a Weight of Conscience. While both exile their target, Oblivion Rings are a bit more fragile than the Weight, which can be made a permanent state at the expense of tapping two White creatures. Both come in handy, as the deck will take whatever it can get. Blue chips in with a single Disperse, giving a touch of bounce to the deck.
Combat trickery is present in the form of an Ego Erasure for your opponent’s creatures, and a pair of Swells of Courage for your own. The latter takes advantage of the reinforce mechanic to offer you a useful choice- a modest bump that affects your entire team, or a potentially substantial one that is limited to a single creature. There’s also a Redeem the Lost which can be used here as well as in other ways, since the applications for protection are many. You can also use it to thwart removal, or make one of your creatures unblockable.
The remaining two artifacts round out the deck. A singleton Wanderer’s Twig gives you some measure of mana fixing (alongside the nonbasic lands Vivid Creek and Vivid Meadow), while the Veteran’s Armaments are part of Morningtide’s tribal cycle of equipment. These can be quite strong on both offense and defense, and can also dissuade a swarm-minded opponent from committing their forces to battle en masse while they look for a workaround.
Next, we’ll see how the deck does in the field as we take it into battle. See you in two days, when we render a verdict and give it a grade!