Gatecrash: Dimir Dementia Review (Part 1 of 2)
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 Hours. Soulbond, from Avacyn Restored? Tandem Lookout. Buyback? 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.
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.
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.
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 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!