Gatecrash: Boros Battalion Review (Part 1 of 2)
Mark Rosewater notably once wrote that 1998’s Urza’s Saga was “the only time in the eight years that I’ve been working at Wizards that R&D as an entirity got pulled into the president’s office and was yelled at.” As we covered in our review of The Plague, the set suffered from some very serious shortcomings in terms of mechanics and power level, and is likely uncontested in claiming the dubious honour of most broken block of all time. To those of a more optimistic mindset, however, crises can be regarded as an opportunity in waiting, as often one has the opportunity to address the problem head-on. For Wizards, this meant acknowledging the core problem and fixing it.
As they came to realise, much of the damage was done because it was allowed to be- they simply didn’t have the resources to give the set a proper going-over that would have exposed the inherent flaws in the cards of the set. Although we take it for granted today, at the time the structured roles of design and development were much more overlapping. Indeed, a look at the names involved for both functions in Urza’s Saga reveals significant overlap, with three of the four members of the design team also serving on development, including the same lead (Mike Elliot). This looks even worse when you take onboard the fact that the fourth designer, Richard Garfield, was included not because of his work on Urza’s Saga (there wasn’t any), but because mechanics that he had designed for Tempest ended up being used in the set.
To properly create a set, Wizards realised, this ‘incestuous’ structure had to end, and a newly-designed set would need to have fresh and dedicated eyes on it for proper development. To do so, they made what at the time was a fairly ambitious step and looked towards the playing community on the Pro Tour for candidates. Worth Wollpert, Brian Schneider, and Randy Buehler (who would go on to become a Vice-President of Research and Development) were amongst those who came aboard at this time from the arena of organised play, and would have a tremendous impact on the game. Taken together, this was the dawning of the “Third Age” of design, as laid out by Rosewater.
It proved a powerful lesson. In looking for talent outside the usual avenues, Wizards could greatly strengthen the design and development power that it brought to continuing creating the game of Magic. The Third Age of design ushered in the age of block design, where themes and mechanics were supported across the sets within a single block. This is something else the modern game takes for granted, but earlier sets- if they connected at all- were often tied together narratively at best. The Third Age would commence with the release of Invasion in 2000, the first “colour matters” set, and run for the next five years until the conclusion of the Kamigawa block.
This lesson would pave the way for the Fourth and Fifth Ages, when Wizards found an even more unusual route to identify new creative talent. Although Gatecrash was still some ways off, the seeds of its germination were planted many years before as we’ll see in our next deck review. For now, we’ll pause here and look at the first of the new Intro Pack decks, Boros Battalion.
Fight Among the Rank and File
Boros Battalion takes as its namesake the guild’s updated mechanic. The original one, radiance, had been one of the original Ravnica’s larger disappointments, doing very little to establish or reinforce the guild’s identity. Worse, radiance could be particularly bad when playing against a fellow Red and/or White deck, since it would splash itself across the board in ways that might be highly undesirable (see: Cleansing Beam). That could result in cards being dead in your hand, which is particularly toxic to a deck that relies upon speed and aggression. Battalion seems to hit the right note, by giving you an ability attached to cards you’ll already be wanting to play that makes them even stronger.
The deck opens with a trio of one-drops and a taste of battalion right off the bat in the form of the Boros Elite. The Elite is a simple, straightforward example that illustrates the mechanic well. Like many cards we call “feast or famine,” the Elite is somewhat undesirable in its natural state- a simple 1/1. These sorts of cards, however, promise you an extra reward if you’re able to complete whatever task or condition is set out for you, in this case attacking with the Elite and at least two other creatures. Then, rather than the feeble 1/1 Solider, you’re charging into the red zone with a much more robust 3/3.
You also find a pair of Warclamp Mastiffs here, 1/1’s with first strike from Magic 2013. This is a more puzzling inclusion, since unlike most of the rest of the deck the Mastiff never gets the ability to better itself, and brings nothing extra to the table. The most notable thing about it is that it is a reskin of Tundra Wolves from Legends, but here- in the absence of enhancers like exalted or equipment- it’s something of a misfit.
A much more robust first strike option is available as we move on to the two-drops with the Wojek Halberdiers. Sure you have to activate battalion to get it, but even on their own the 3/2 Halberdiers are far stronger than the Mastiff, and are much more relevant later in the game. One of the risks battalion forces you to take is to commit a high number of troops to the attack to get the ability to trigger, and if your opponent is playing a sturdier set of creatures you might find yourself sending troops in on a suicide mission just to be able to get the most out of them. Thanks to battalion, the Halberdiers have a much higher degree of survivability, needing to be blocked by at least a 2/4 to come out the loser of any skirmish. The deck gives you a trio of them.
Next up is the Daring Skyjek, or which there are two. The strong-front-end/brittle-back-end fliers seem to be increasingly common in the game these days. First seen in Visions (Wake of Vultures, Rainbow Efreet), a full third of the two dozen or so to have seen print have been from Shards of Alara block and forward, including such luminaries as the Aven Mimeomancer, Horizon Drake, Impaler Shrike, Skywinder Drake, and, most recently, Return to Ravnica’s Lyev Skyknight. Gatecrash brings us two, the Drakewing Krasis and this fine fellow, whose flying is contingent upon your ability to send him into combat in support of other troops. The role of evasion here is plain, giving the deck a second offensive dimension that can be difficult for other decks to deal with. The 1 toughness will always keep the Skyjek fragile, but left unchecked the card will do some solid work.
Rounding out the two-drops we find a trio of one-offs, starting with the Bomber Corps. The Corps is a 1/2 body, which in Red isn’t the worst deal you’ll find (it compares evenly with the classic Goblin Piker). Although as a body it’s a bit underwhelming, the ability to toss off the odd bit of damage can be very useful. The obvious utility here is to kill off an opposing x/1 creature or, barring that, to throw it at an opponent’s face, but the ability to skew your opponent’s combat math by simply damaging an opposing potential blocker so that it won’t survive combat if committed is not to be overlooked. Alternately, if you’d rather take a firmer hand in tweaking your opponent’s defensive options, you might find better luck with the Firefist Striker, who falters your opponent’s best blocker when battalion kicks in. The Striker is actually a strictly better Goblin Piker, and compares quite favourably.
The last card is the Sunhome Guildmage, the Red/White member of the cycle. As we’ve seen, Guildmages have tended to support the guild’s distinctive mechanic where it’s made sense to do so, and the Sunhome is no exception. The second ability lets you create a 1/1 Soldier with haste, which can make the difference between attacking with two creatures (no battalion) and three (battalion). Sure it costs four mana, but it’s a very useful insurance policy to let the deck get the most out of its mechanic. The other ability buffs your side +1/+0 and can be used more than once a turn. This, too, favours an aggressively attacking deck, and both abilities taken together make the Guildmage a highly useful member of the team.
Next up are the three-drops, and again we have a number of option to play here. First up is what will undoubtedly be one of the deck’s all-stars, the Skyknight Legionnaire. This reprint from the original Ravnica was good then, and even better now. Thanks to haste, the Legionnaire can activate battalion for you as early as turn 3, for as much as eight points of damage. Sure that’s a best-case-scenario, but swap out the turn-2 Daring Skyjek for a Firefist Striker or Bomber Corps and you’re still punching well above your weight. The ability to get off an ambush battalion is not to be taken lightly, and you can punish an opponent who overcommits to the attack or otherwise underestimates how quickly this deck can ‘go big.’ Having evasion means that the Legionnaire will be difficult to deal with for many opponents, letting it survive to lead the charge turn after turn. Although lacking battalion itself, it’s a superb enabler, and the deck gives you a pair of them.
Next up is the Warmind Infantry, and this one does have battalion. Like the earlier Elite, the Infantry gets a straightforward stats boost whenever the ability is activated, becoming a sterner 4/3. The remaining option here don’t directly interact with the mechanic, but have roles of their own to play. The Court Street Denizen is a welcome addition, since she’ll let you tap down your opponent’s best blocker whenever you play a White creature (this includes multicoloured ones). There’s a subtle trade-off at work here, though, in that you typically want to play your creatures after combat in your second main phase, giving your opponent as little information as possible when deciding upon a defense. To maximise the Denizen’s ability to neuter defenses, though, you need to play your creatures prior to your attack phase, which more or less commits your hand before your opponent decides upon how to defend. Most of the time, though, you’ll still come out ahead in the exchange, and tappers are very solid supporting mechanisms in combat-heavy weenie decks. The danger of any small-creature strategy is that you start to run up against bigger and bigger creatures until your deck stalls out, but by denying your opponent the use of their best blockers you essentially add a little more fuel in the tank.
The Armored Transport is cut from the same cloth as cards like Duskworker, which protect themselves when committed to the offensive. Although a fragile 2/1, the Transport can’t die in offensive combat. This means you can shove it into the red zone turn after turn without fear of losing it, making this a very useful battalion support card. It’s all the moreso when you assess its ability as a blocker, where the card is significantly worse. This is one of those cards Wizards designs that is a subtle nudge towards a certain direction, in this case encouraging attack. The final three-drop on offer is the Ember Beast, which occupies an interesting place in card development. For quite a long time, the only card that had the “can’t attack or block alone” restriction was the Mogg Flunkies from Stronghold, which saw quite a bit of Constructed play in their day.
Then, in 2009, Wizards returned to that largely pristine bit of design space and asked, what would a one-drop Flunkies look like? The result was the Jackal Familiar, and thanks to the Ember Beast we now have the third card in the sequence. The Beast is slightly less efficient than its predecessors, giving you only an extra point of toughness in return for the extra mana invested, but Red is not typically a colour that gets to enjoy conversations about “creature efficiency.” In this deck, the Beast will have plenty of company, so its drawback isn’t particularly odious, and as a 3/4 it’s the second-largest natural body in the deck.
A couple more Magic 2013 cards make their appearance as we transition to the four-drops with the Canyon Minotaur. While nearly every release sees the same complains about “Core Set filler” being crammed into the decks, Boros Battalion does a laudable job of keeping that aspect to a minimum here. Aside from the one-drop Mastiffs, there are no other Core Set cards to be found in the deck, and while the Canyon Minotaur sets no-one’s world on fire, it’s a sturdy 3/3 body with no drawbacks, and for that alone it has a role in the deck. Of course, there are much flashier options on offer here that make the Minotaur seem downright pedestrian.
The first of these is another Minotaur, the Ordruun Veteran. The Veteran is another 3/1, and while his battalion ability does nothing to address his back-end fragility, it can sure pack a wallop on the front-end thanks to double strike. This gives the Veteran the same resilience to being traded out that the Halberdiers have, but with considerably more offensive upside. Indeed, anything less stout than an x/7 will likely fall in trade with it. From there, we come across our first rare card, the Firemane Avenger. The Boros entry in the week of holiday previews on the mothership (one per guild ,she was spoiled the day after Christmas by clicking an image of a wrapped present on the site), the Avenger throws a free Lightning Helix for you whenever her battalion is triggered. Similar to the Bomber Corps, this can be very strong in hindering the ability of your opponent to defend against your attack, as 3 damage should be enough to kill something outright most times, depleting their pool of available blockers. The incidental lifegain is also nice, since with the amount of attacking the deck asks you to do you might find yourself open to counterattacks. All this on a four-mana 3/3 flier makes the Avenger very attractive here, and a card your opponent simply must find an answer for- and soon.
Finally, at the top of the mana curve we find the deck’s final three creatures. The Fortress Cyclops doesn’t directly support battalion, but instead is a creature useful on both attack and defense thanks to its conditional buffs. Whether attacking as a 6/3 or defending as a 3/6, the Fortress Cyclops can make an impact in either direction, though it’s not entirely certain that it can make an impact worth its fairly hefty pricetag. The same can’t be said about the deck’s foil premium rare, the Foundry Champion. At six mana the Champion is no bargain either, but unlike the Cyclops it makes an immediate impact on the board by serving up a dose of direct damage that can hit either a creature or an opponent. In a constructed environment, players who overcommit with creatures can be punished for doing so with a sweeper, but in the preconstructed environment you have much less to fear. This is a deck that already wants you to flood the board, and the Champion richly rewards you for having done precisely that. Its 4/4 body is also the strongest in the deck, and you can pump either power or toughness to suit. That said, it’s not evasive, and so in some ways isn’t quite as swingy as the Firemane Angel. It does, however, give you some immediate reach, and can finish off a wounded opponent- something the Angel can’t do without the passing of another turn thanks to summoning sickness.
The noncreature support suite for Boros Battalion follows the standard pattern for White/Red combat decks, offering a smattering of removal and combat trickery. First up is a Righteous Charge, an intriguing reprint from Portal Second Age. As the Portal environment did not contain any instants (though it had a few cards that simulated them, like Mystic Denial), Righteous Charge is a sorcery, a fact which limits its “trickiness.” That said, an across-the-board +2/+2 bonus for three mana is fairly cheap, and instant versions of this spell tend to be either conditional (Guardians’ Pledge) or expensive (Stir the Pride, Swell of Courage). Since this is a deck that imposes its will through the red zone, a well-timed Charge can prove very strong. One thing Boros Battalion has to be vigilant of is the balance between attrition and enabling. There will be times that you’ll have to attack with creatures doomed to die just to trigger battalion, but you also must have a care that your losses don’t become so great that you can no longer reliably threaten your opponent. Cards like Righteous Charge tilt that scale somewhat more in your favour.
Next we have Aerial Maneuver, which is a sort of ersatz removal thanks to the combination of buffs. That said, you have to commit a creature to act as defender to make use of it, making it fairly conditional. A Shielded Passage also checks in here as a way to make a creature trade become a one-sided rout, though at the cost of a card. Again, ersatz removal.
For more straightforward removal, we have a few other options. Arrows of Justice hits a creature for 4 damage, a fair output for three mana. That said, it’s fairly conditional on what it can hit, and can’t address an opponent’s utility creature that doesn’t set foot into the red zone. For that, you’ll have to depend upon a single copy of Mugging, which delivers 2 damage at sorcery speed. That’s not great, but the falter effect tacked onto it makes the card much more useful by helping your attackers past your opponents defense. Mark for Death cuts its measure from similar cloth here, acting both as a falter effect as well as ersatz removal. The same goes for Act of Treason, which offsets the temporary nature of its effect for giving you an extra attacker to swing in with. This suite is fairly inconsistent, with each card having conditions placed upon its utility. This is in keeping with what we’ve seen in recent sets from Wizards, where removal seems to be trending downward somewhat in terms of power and/or flexibility.
The last two cards here are a pair of Boros Keyrunes. These are of dubious value here for two reasons. First, this is a deck with a fairly aggressive mana curve, so it won’t benefit as much from ramping as decks that field a more expensive core of cards. Second- and this is a new development- is that Wizards has for one reason or another once again ticked up the number of lands the deck runs. A 40% land content (24 land) has been fairly standard for the bulk of Magic’s 60-card Intro Packs, though that’s not to say that there haven’t been exceptions- both Phyrexian Poison as well as Deadspread ran 26 land cards. On on occasional basis, this would appear to be a decision made in support of the deck- Deadspread in particular really wanted to curve out consistently, as its proliferate engine took some time to set up. However, that’s hardly the case with Boros Battalion. Here’s a look at the modern Intro Pack environment as well as average number of lands.
As you can see, the format hasn’t been quite as tightly bound to the 24-card standard as the general impression might indicate, but the adoption of 26 lands as the across-the-board standard for Gatecrash represents a significant increase over sets as recent as Magic 2013. Taken on board with the tick upwards for Return to Ravnica, and this presents something of a concerning trend. Has land filler become the new Core Set filler? It’s a topic we’ll certainly be returning to.
But for now, we’ve got some playtesting to do! Boros Battalion is going into the pit to be put through its paces, and we’ll be back in two days with the result. See you then!