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February 3, 2013

24

Gatecrash: Dimir Dementia Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

At times, Magic can seem a rather paradoxical game. Take the much-derided mana screw, for instance. A source of eternal criticism and feel-bad moments for players from novice to professional, it is by turns also credited with assuring the longevity of the game. This unpleasant, frustrating experience has been looked at as a design problem to be overcome in  other games, offering more stable and consistent resource development- and yet many of those games are consigned to the halls of history while Magic flourishes still.

Another such seeming contradiction is with the game’s card pool. Aspiring players are intimidated by a game with thousands upon thousands of moving parts- and not without reason. The game is entering its 20th year of existence, and that’s an impressive amount of cards. By the same token, keeping the card pool ever-refreshed is another factor in the game’s impressive longevity. The key to reconciling this as a new player, though, is to understand that Magic is a game that is both old and new- at the same time. We’re not just referring to reprints and reskins (an old card given a new name), but rather the patterns within the game that take a nebulous mass of cards and gives them classification and structure. When you begin to understand these patterns, the card pool becomes much more manageable, breaking the “paradoxical” barrier to entry.

So what are these ‘patterns?’ A big “a-ha!” moment comes when you discover that Magic isn’t radically reinventing itself wholesale each release, but rather that a large number of cards- particularly those that give the set its identity- take a staple effect and recast it through the new mechanical lens being introduced in the set. For an example, we know that “discard a card” is a standard Black effect, and most Magic sets let you force your opponent to lose cards from their hand. The difference, then, is how this ability gets used, and how that ties in with the set. For Gatecrash, the Dimir’s new mechanic cipher gives us the opportunity to use and reuse that discard effect with Mental Vapors. Thanks to cipher, we can cast it once, then stick it onto one of our creatures for free recastings every time that creature connects with an opponent.

Like related species of creatures on a taxological chart, we find a wealth of other cards from other sets which have made their own version of this card. Odyssey gave us flashback, which was recently returned for Innistrad. Take the discard effect, stick flashback on it, and voila! Skull Fracture. Put buyback on it, and you’ve got Mind Peel. With the ninjutsu mechanic from Betrayers of Kamigawa, these spell effects were instead moved to creatures, similar to cipher but without the option to cast it as a spell first. The result? The Okiba-Gang Shinobi.

For one more example, let’s look at another iconic effect, Blue’s ability to draw cards. You’re going to find something that does this nearly every set, and a great many of them are related that follow the same simple formula: [staple effect] + [new mechanic] = [new card]. For our Dimir friends in today’s deck, we find Last Thoughts. Stick flashback on it, and you have Think Twice. For ninjutsu, Ninja of the Deep HoursSoulbond, from Avacyn Restored? Tandem LookoutBuyback? Whispers of the Muse. And so on it goes.

This in no way is meant to imply a lack of creativity on the part of Wizards. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the act of recasting the old as something new- and making it feel new for players of the game- is itself an act of creation. On that note, we now turn to Dimir Dementia, a 60-card construction that indeed turns the old to new again, all to the benefit of Ravnica’s most secret of guilds.

Walk Unseen

Dimir Dementia Scorecard

Like the Dimir in Gatecrash itself, Dimir Dementia combines two different mechanical elements, and not without some overlap. The first of these is the cipher mechanic, as represented by cipher cards themselves as well as ways to maximise their potential use through evasive creatures. The other is through milling, particularly the ‘grind’ mechanic.

The deck opens with a single one-drop, Jace’s Phantasm. This clearly is supported by the latter strategy, as the difference between it being a one-mana 1/1 flier and a one-mana 5/5 flier depends upon the degree of success you’ve had milling out your opponent. Cards in a graveyard is one of those things that is often overestimated. As anyone who has played with the threshold mechanic can tell you, it’s not always as easy as you think to put seven cards into your own graveyard. Fortunately, Dimir Dementia has ways of ‘assisting’ your opponent, and one of these is the Duskmantle Guildmage. For four mana, the Guildmage can mill an opponent for two cards, but that’s not all he can do. His other activated ability exacts a toll when your opponent is milled, causing them to lose 1 life for each card put into a graveyard. This is a great supplement to a milling strategy, since one of milling’s weaknesses is that it does absolutely nothing until it finally does something. There’s no incremental advantage in your board position, since an opponent with forty cards in their library is little different from one with ten. This adds a second, vital component in the form of life loss, and it’s important to note that while it fits perfectly for milling, the Guildmage punishes an opponent for putting a card in their graveyard from anywhere, not just from their library. A strong addition!

Next up we find the Wight of Precinct Six. In addition to having an evocative name that hints at a story to come, the Wight is another card that rewards you for successfully grinding cards off the top of your opponent’s library. A two-mana 1/1 is a poor deal, but while the Wight is conditional it’s nowhere near as conditional as the Phantasm. Put another way, if you haven’t managed to kill off any of your opponent’s creatures in the first place, you’ve probably got bigger problems to worry about than whether or not you can wring a little extra value out of a two-drop. The Wight’s effectiveness can vary widely based upon the type of deck you are playing, since milling is much more likely to stock the larder when facing an aggro opponent than a control one, since the latter tend to run only a few, big finishers rather than an army of cheaper ones. Still, it’s another card with a fun factor tied in to how we’ll you’re honouring the Dimir’s mission.

The other half of that mission gets some attention with the Incursion Specialist. Blue has been quite happy to run 1/3 vanilla creatures for two mana in the past, such as the Lumengrid Warden and Maritime Guard. Although they’re not flashy, the high toughness relative to cost can buy the Blue mage the gift of time, defending them against an early rush. Magic 2013 kicked the archetype up a rarity level and tacked on a conditional power in the Augur of Bolas, and now Gatecrash gives us the Specialist. The Specialist offers a tantalising deal- cast two (or more) spells in a single turn, and he becomes a 3/3 Phantom Warrior. This is a perfect support for the guild’s cipher mechanic, but care must be taken that the urge to activate his unblockability doesn’t lead to bad timing decisions. This was precisely the sort of pressure a Werewolf deck put its opponents under in Innistrad block, compelling them to play their cards quickly rather than well, and it is no less dangerous a trap here. Playing a spell at a suboptimal time must always be regarded as an additional ‘cost’ of activating the Specialist, and weighed accordingly.

Duskmantle Guildmage

Duskmantle Guildmage

The rest of the deck’s two-drops are rather more pedestrian affairs, filling out the deck’s need of solid bodies. The Gutter Skulk is a reskinned Walking Corpse, again filling the recently-available position of two-mana 2/2 for Black, which has long had to contend with Scathe Zombies instead. The deck gives you three of them, indicating the need to at least have a reasonable creature presence in the early-to-mid transition. There’s also a single copy of Welkin Tern here, a reprint from Zendikar. The Tern has some limitations on defensive employment, being what’s referred to in Wizards R&D as a “high-flier,” but in return you get 2 power in the air rather cheaply. The evasion is also very useful when assessing potential encoding targets for your cipher spells.

Moving on to the deck’s smaller number of three-drops, we find another very appealing cipher target with the Deathcult Rogue. A 2/2 that’s blockable only by Rogues, this will often slip through an opponent’s defenses with ease. That said, there are a total of twenty-one different Rogues in the Standard environment of the present, so it’s not quite the carte-blanche pass it might be tempting to see it as. It’s a flavourful and useful card, though, and well worth its two places in the starting lineup.

Next up is the Sage’s Row Denizen. The Denizen cycle in Gatecrash gives five different creatures, each of which gives a bonus whenever a creature of the same colour enters the battlefield. The most useful of these may be Green’s Ivy Lane Denizen, as a free +1/+1 counter is immediately relevant on the board, whereas milling an opponent for two won’t always be so. Still, it’s repeatable milling on a sturdy enough body, even if you won’t always get a lot of mileage out of its triggered ability. The last card here can help with that, though. The Mortus Strider is a three-mana 1/1, a terrible deal, but like the Reassembling Skeleton it’s not priced on the body it provides, but on how difficult it is for an opponent to make that body go away. The Strider returns to your hand when it dies rather than going to the graveyard, so it can be cast and recast each turn if it dies (say, chump-blocking). It’s a somewhat pricey prospect, but it’s an ability that has some very useful applications. In addition to repeated mill through the Denizen, for instance, it can also help prolong the usefulness of the Incursion Specialist.

For the four-drop slot, you have fewer choices still. There’s a pair of Balustrade Spies, and a single Vedalken Entrancer. The Spies are another card that occupies that overlapping space in the Dimir Venn diagram, offering a dose of the “grind” style of milling as well as an evasive body useful for encoding with cipher. The Entrancer, on the other hand, is much more single-minded of purpose, mainly here as another milling engine stuck on a defensive-minded 1/4 body.

At the top of the curve we have some additional closing options. First up is the Mindeye Drake. Like the Entrancer, the Drake’s numbers cast it in a more defensive frame of mind, but it also has a very nice death rider. Whenever the Drake dies, your opponent will mill off another five cards to their graveyard. It’s not splashy enough of an effect that you’d seek to hasten the Drake’s demise in most cases, but it’s nice to know that if something goes wrong (like your Gruul opponent pumping up whatever you had the Drake block with bloodrush), you still get one last dose of value out of the card.

Then there’s the Dinrova Horror, and you get two copies of this one. The Horror is a six-mana 4/4, which isn’t the best of deals though something you’re not ashamed to cast most of the time. The Horror, however, brings along a nifty little parlour trick, a Boomerang followed by a Pain. The order is particularly significant, as it ensures that your opponent will be hurt by the effect even if you summon the Horror when their hand is empty. Indeed, it will often be preferable to do so, since you can orchestrate the loss of their best permanent if they’ve got nothing else to throw away in its stead.

Finally, we find the deck’s foil premium rare, the Consuming Aberration. The final reward for a game spent milling and grinding away at your opponent’s library, the Aberration’s power and toughness are each drawn from the number of cards in your opponent’s graveyards (the wording, incidentally, making this guy a potential beating in multiplayer). If that wasn’t enough the Aberration also triggers a grind on your opponent’s library whenever you cast a spell, hastening your opponent’s inevitable demise on two different fronts. It’s a perfect fit for the deck, and priced appropriately to see play.

Flock to a Murder Scene

Dimir Dementia is one of the most spell-heavy decks in Gatecrash, tied only with Orzhov Oppression. That means that while a number of the deck’s paths to glory come through its creatures, the noncreature suite has a substantial role to play in support not just of the deck’s beaters, but of the win conditions themselves. Remember, this is a deck that can beat an opponent without ever having moved their life total (unlikely though that may be).

A large part of this comes through the gaining of virtual card advantage thanks to reusable cipher cards. Intriguingly, there is something to be said about cipher given its very sparing use here in the deck. Only five cards have the guild keyword, which stands in start contrast to the other guilds which range from nine occurrences (Gruul Goliaths and Simic Synthesis) up to a full dozen (Boros Battalion). Free spells tend to be very strong, even if you have to jump through a hoop or two to get them.

Totally Lost

Totally Lost

The cipher effects in Dimir Dementia are a varied lot, but all tend to synergise with the deck’s strategy. The emphasis on milling an opponent is supported by Paranoid Delusions, which mills off three at a time. The deck’s other rare card appears here as well with Whispering Madness. This is a clever card, one which won’t always net you an immediate advantage over your opponent (if, for instance, you had more cards in hand at the time of casting). Still, it can put a lot of cards in the graveyard if encoded on an evasive body. Of course, if you’re milling yourself, you might see a few things you’d like to salvage fall into your own graveyard, and for those contingencies you have Midnight Recovery.

The last two cipher cards are the aforementioned Last Thoughts as well as Shadow Slice. Last Thoughts is a straightforward card-advantage engine, replacing itself on the first cast and giving you the opportunity to pull ahead with every swing. Shadow Slice is almost uncharacteristically straightforward- it simply hits your opponent for 3 life- but this too is an effect we’ve seen before as recently as Bump in the Night. This is a “Plan B” card, in case the milling and grinding doesn’t go as planned and you need to claim victory in a more conventional manner.

Beyond cipher, the deck has a fairly respectable removal suite. Death’s Approach is rather like the Tragic Slip of the set, initially weak but conditionally very strong. It hits its sweet spot against decks that run a solid core of mid-range threats. Against weenie/swarm decks, your milling can certainly put a ton of creatures into your opponent’s graveyard, but they’ll tend to have more threats than you will removal. Against control decks that run only a few, large closers, you can’t expect to put enough creatures away for this to actually kill something. Still, for only one mana its very good in this environment.

For more conventional removal, you get a pair of Grisly Spectacles. Although it exempts artifact creatures (somewhat flavourfully, all things considered, as there’s not a lot ‘grisly’ about a pile of springs and cogs), it’s ability to throw in an extra dose of milling advances your board position in two different directions for a single card. This is on par with Murder in terms of value for cost, since you’re only paying Symbol_1_mana for the added effect. Finally, there’s a single copy of Totally Lost, featuring one of Gatecrash’s least likely heroes, Fblthp (seriously, he has his own fan-made Twitter feed, Tumblr page, and substantial MTG Salvation thread). This sticks a permanent on top of a library, which helps make it permanently ‘disappear’ if followed with a milling effect.

Finally, a few odds and ends to round things out. Rise from the Grave offers a one-shot effect similar to Midnight Recovery, but trades reusability for a much more substantial effect. For one thing, it returns the creature to the battlefield rather than you hand, and secondly it’s just as good for plundering your opponent’s graveyard as your own. If you’ve milled your opponent and something particularly tasty appears, Rise from the Grave will let you take it for a spin. Coerced Confession is another milling card, but one that combines with card drawing as well. It’s highly variable in its effect- sometimes, you’ll have paid five mana just to have your opponent mill four cards- a tremendous waste of resources. Other times, though, you might draw three cards off of it. It doesn’t compare well to Tidings, however, which lets you draw the full four for the same converted mana cost. In the end its useful and clever, but probably not worth the mana and inconsistency.

As expected, the deck ends with a pair of Dimir Keyrunes and a single copy of a Dimir Guildgate, for mana ramping and fixing. The Keyrunes in particular are very useful to the deck, as they offer another unbloackable route for your cipher shenanigans (yes, encoded cards remain on them even when they stop being a creature).

Our spotlight-avoiding Dimir friends have been squirming in their seat at the attention they’ve been given today, so we’ll let them off the catbird seat and head for the battlefield. Join us again in two days’ time when we return with a final analysis and score!

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24 Comments Post a comment
  1. yos
    Feb 3 2013

    Just picked up this deck, and I’m eager to read the second part of your review to see how it plays for you. It’s a lot of fun so far.

    Reply
  2. Feb 3 2013

    Those are a lot of 1-ofs in this deck. Maybe there are a lot in the other ones, but this is the deck that I noticed it in, which doesn’t bode well for the Dimir.

    I’m a little worried that this deck is trying to do too much for a preconstructed deck, with both milling and cipher at the same time, and that in doing such, it manages to do neither.

    I’ll be interested to see how this works out in the battlefield.

    Reply
  3. Brad Hall
    Feb 3 2013

    Just picked this one up, I’m excited to stick some Fog Banks and Invisible Stalkers in it for some nice cipher mayhem.

    Reply
  4. alza6991
    Feb 4 2013

    An interesting deck. Consuming Aberration was (arguably) the best Promo Card for the prerelease, and it ties in well. Even though Dimir runs Milling alongside Cipher, it is disappointing to see so few Cipher cards in the deck, regardless of whether its an intro pack or not. At least it leaves plenty of room for building around.

    Reply
  5. Feb 4 2013

    I was reading this and got a guffaw when I saw the link to Fblthp’s tumblr, which I run. Thanks for the mention, Jay 🙂

    This deck looks like the most painful thing for your opponent — I can just imagine being attacked by tiny guys, getting milled, seeing the same incremental-advantage spells being cast against you… That’s gotta hurt!

    Reply
    • Feb 4 2013

      That’s you? Hilarious! I love how this one little character’s finding legs. Great art and flavour to the card, I had to show Jimi the first time I saw it, too.

      Reply
      • Feb 5 2013

        Haha yup, that’s me. 🙂 Fblthp’s got a voice of himself. Plus, it’s a good fun MtG community in there, too, it’s the support that makes everything worth it!

        Reply
  6. Laurent
    Feb 4 2013

    Having run (and won with) Dimir at my store’s prerelease, I’ve been eager to see what the deck does when played (I miss a bunch of few cards to finish it myself) : the only complaint I see in it so far is the lack of Cipher in it…why, a milling strategy SHOULD have more than just 1 Paranoid Dellusions imo. Looking forward for the second part, as well as the meddling that’ll happen when it’ll be Dimir Week (your rakdos build heped me win last week FNM :D)

    Reply
  7. Lee
    Feb 4 2013

    Look good. Nice to see another deck with milling as a goal. Not sure if it is focused enough to consistently win though and i suspect an agressive deck would do well against it. Will see how it plays out in part 2

    Reply
  8. Morten Dall
    Feb 4 2013

    I really like this deck. I’m seriously considering to buy it. otherwise, I’ll just add some of the cards to my Black/Blue zombie deck from the innistrad block – there seems to be possibilities for some pretty neat additions.

    Reply
  9. Zack
    Feb 4 2013

    Consuming Abberation feels like so much wasted potential. It would be a game-ender in multiplayer… but from experience, I can tell that you a mill deck rarely lasts til the end of a multiplayer game. So awesome, but so impractical.

    Reply
  10. Chris X
    Feb 4 2013

    Not a fan of Dimir, but its foil rare is a superbomb!

    Reply
  11. J Ray
    Feb 4 2013

    I bought this Intro Deck this weekend, and it definitely has potential. It’s unfortunate there aren’t more cards in this deck that utilize the Cipher mechanic, as when it hits it can pretty useful (especially Whispering Madness and Paranoid Delusions).

    After a little tinkering, this deck is a monster. I highly recommend considering throwing in a few copies of Chronic Flooding. Use it early on, and your opponents are forced to tap and mill. Sleep will also help you swing in unblocked or stall if needed.This deck has crushed a friend’s green-aggro, red-burn, and a pretty solid mono-black Zendikar vampire deck.

    While it has the potential for winning via mill-out (especially if you have a Jace, Memory Adept ready to go), I found most of the deck’s wins came from combat damage via creatures like Wight of Precinct Six and especially Consuming Aberration. Once Consuming Aberration hits the table, it grows at a ridiculous rate. Every spell is another mill, which is another boost. It’s not surprising to see this creature’s power/toughness get into the double digits when left in the game long enough.

    Sorry for the long-winded rant, but this deck really had me happy to be playing Dimir. I’d love to hear what other people are adding in and how it’s performing.

    Reply
  12. Jon S
    Feb 4 2013

    Looking forward to seeing it in battle. I picked it up and was disappointed that it did not have hands of binding in it(a cipher card that costs 2 and taps creatures thus adding evasion) and only one paranoid Delusion. Still I hope to see the potential of the deck(win or lose) in the play testing.

    Reply
  13. Varo
    Feb 4 2013

    This deck feels a bit like the Dimir deck from original Ravnica, mixing two ways to win without commiting completely to either one. While this deck seems slow, i’m betting now that it will be one of the funniest to play.

    By the way, two Dimir keyrunes are a superb inclusion to the deck to support Cipher!

    Reply
  14. I had the misfortune of seeing two Consuming Abberations hit the table across from me at Prerelease. Double the mill, double the growth, time to pick up my cards.

    Reply
  15. Feb 5 2013

    Huh – I never noticed how many of the good blue/black creatures in M13 were Rogues…

    Reply
  16. Feb 6 2013

    The Jace’s Phantasm is hilariously good in here. I was half expecting some Tormented Souls to also go in since they’re perfect cipher enablers..

    Reply
  17. Limbonic_art
    Feb 7 2013

    I’m just kind of perplexed at what the deck is trying to achieve. It wants to be a mill deck with lots of options that are optimized when used in tandem with mill, but it also has a couple of expensive control cards. It has a lot of flying and evasive creatures to take advantage of cipher, but there is only one dedicated mill cipher card. I guess the route to winning will be either in the shadows with unblockable critters or mill, along with some discard, card drawing. The only thing it suffers from is a couple of overcosted creatures that fill more than one role, like Mindeye drake and Balustrade spy, but I like the idea of using mill as a rider. I just think this rider should also be in cheaper cards also and not be so costly, but the idea was to try to get players to use cards that mill and that are useful at the same time. I really hope that having acess to two win conditions helps the deck more than hinders it, but the inclusion of cards that are affected by the size of the opponents graveyard or cards going there will help achieve both conditions.Another note, cipher seems a bit overcosted on many cards, it really depends on evasion to really take advantage of it, but in this removal-lite environment cipher cards could be used and abused.

    Reply
  18. Feb 8 2013

    This deck seems like lots of fun and I always like decks which can kill you in many ways. If only they centred more on the real hero of the deck…Fblthp!

    Reply
  19. Jacopo Sassi
    Feb 9 2013

    This looks like the most enjoyable deck of the five- many interactions between cards, two separate win conditions, splashy rares…the only thing I complain about is the inconsistency of the Cipher package, having the opportunity to slap two Paranoid delusions on an evasive flyer would have been so sweet!

    Reply
  20. ArosWrath
    Feb 9 2013

    I’m actually really surprised they didn’t feature more cipher cards. Unlike the other 4 decks this one doesn’t seem to flaunt its guild mechanic.

    Reply
  21. mcc1701
    Feb 12 2013

    The deck’s construction is odd but understandable. The reason for so few cipher cards is that it has to share the space with some mill cards. Not too much since there is some overlap, but enough.

    Now with the construction of the deck, the idea is for intro decks to be modified, and you have enough here to go either way. The other reason is so you have 2 win conditions. Sometimes, having just some unblockable creatures and disruption works, and if a game lasts long you will still mill them out. The main point here is that both take you toward the same end. 1 mana for -5/-5 is great, as is a 6/6 for 2 mana, and with mill that is what you get. You will notice that most intro decks have 2 win conditions, though they are generally harder to tell. IE. the azoriois intro deck has good agro potential AND has late game potential. It is the biggest flaw in the Orzhov deck, as they don’t do well aggressively, but half the deck works towards that.

    Reply
  22. Gabriel
    Feb 15 2013

    I’m not so excited about milling but Cipher is awesome!

    Reply

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