Mercadian Masques: Rebel’s Call Review (Part 1 of 2)
“Just like all of you,” wrote Mark Rosewater back in 2005 in response to a volume of mail about Saviors of Kamigawa, “R&D learns about the game as time goes on. And part of the learning process is the occasional mistake.” In this case, the mistake was about keywords- particularly the keyword sweep which he conceded should never have been keyworded in the first place. This was precisely the opposite problem that had plagued Mercadian Masques five years prior.Very quickly from the establishment of the game, keywords were recognised as an important aspect of Magic’s cycle of innovation and reinvention. The game had launched with an impressive array of them, most of which are now considered to be ‘evergreen’ keywords. First strike, flying, trample, these have been a part of most every set since. The earliest expansions brought little new keyword design, with only Legends really making an effort with rampage and bands with other- both fairly obscure by modern standards. Ice Age introduced cumulative upkeep, but it wasn’t until 1996’s Mirage that we saw a keyword policy recognisable to modern magic. Mirage brought flanking and phasing, which were continued in Visions and Weatherlight. Another pair were brought in next year with Tempest, and buyback and shadow were similarly supported throughout the block. Then along came Mercadian Masques, which had… well… nothing.
Where Wizards failed with Mercadian Masques was not in the failure to innovate and create new mechanics. Indeed, Masques had quite a bit of things going for it, but they were all tied to cards in a way that was somewhat more subtle. For instance, Rebels and Mercenaries were a pair of opposing-colour tribes that each had a unique ability to tutor up more of its kind. Between the two, this defined over a dozen cards in that first set alone, and offered an easily-grasped lesson in synergistic deckbuilding.
Beyond just tribal mechanics, Masques tinkered with the notion of just what a spell could be. Its next pair of mechanical innovations accounted for more than forty further cards- a substantial chunk of the set! The first of these were the Spellshapers. Like the Rebels and Mercenaries, these were a creature type unified through a common ability, in this case the ability to turn cards in hand into iconic, staple spells on the battlefield. This explored the value of a card in hand, and what it was worth to turn it into a different effect. The Bog Witch, for instance, turned any of your cards into a Dark Ritual, while the Dawnstrider promised a steady supply of Fogs. The Devout Witness brought along Disenchants, while the Seismic Mage gave you Stone Rains.
Masques’ other innovation came in the value of a spell itself, beyond what the casting cost was in the upper-right corner. These cards let you cast spells for free if you satisfied certain conditions, not unlike the popular cycle of ‘pitch cards’ from Alliances (of which Force of Will is the most famous). The pitch mechanic itself returned in cards like Reverent Mantra and Cave-In, but Wizards expanded that design space to account for all manner of alternative costs. A cycle of Blue spells let you cast them by returning a certain amount of Islands to your hand (Tidal Bore for one, Gush for two, Thwart for three). Red, meanwhile, simply asked for the sacrifice of a Mountain or two for Crash, Thunderclap, or Pulverize. Black demanded a blood sacrifice (Snuff Out, Delraich), White asked you to peacefully tap one of your creatures (Orim’s Cure, Ramosian Rally), and Green had you either give life to your opponent (Invigorate) or information (Land Grant).
The problem, however, was that in failing to keyword any of these mechanics, they lessened the impact on the players. Mercadian Masques taught Wizards an important lesson in design. Reflects Rosewater:
The other classic example [the first being cycling] is Mercadian Masques. The set had no keyword mechanics, and we were inundated with people asking us why the set had no new mechanics. The point I want to make is this: many players don’t tend to see connection unless we make an effort to point them out. Sometimes we do that through names. Sometimes through art. Occasionally, we’ll even have flavor text help out. When we want to make sure that players recognize a pattern, we’ve learned that we have to highlight it. -“Ability Word to Your Mother” 28 JUL 08
In a nutshell, that’s the major reason behind our keyword conversion. R&D spends a lot of time and energy coming up with cool mechanics. We want you to notice them. And the interconnectivity between them. And if we don’t connect them, all the research shows the vast majority of the players don’t see it. (I can’t tell you how sick I was of hearing “Why didn’t you put any mechanics in Mercadian Masques?”)
This is fundamentally why keywords matter. They raise public recognition of what is in the set. This does a wide variety of good things (go read my column on keywords for why), the best of which is that they raise overall happiness as players like it when they feel they get more. -“One With One With Nothing” 06 JUN 2005
This begs the question invoked by the line from Romeo and Juliet in our first review. In the absence of named mechanics, does Mercadian Masques smell as sweet? Today we explore the Rebels mechanics in search of an answer.
Most commonly when we review the creature contingent for a deck, we break the creatures down by their converted mana cost. This makes sense, since they are presented more or less in order that they might appear in a game. That’s not always the case, as is with decks whose creatures break down better by theme or function, but few decks demand to be cataloged by cost quite as intently as Rebel’s Call. The casting costs for these creatures don’t just determine order of play, you see, but in fact they are a central element to the very foundational strategy of the deck itself.
Thanks to the Rebel mechanic, almost every creature in the deck has the ability to call up reinforcements from your library rather than your hand. This is relentless card advantage, which almost turns your library into your hand. This would have the potential to be absurdly powerful if the Rebels were packed with enters-the-battlefield effects, giving you what’s known as a “toolbox” deck where you could find the right answer at the right time by activating one of your Rebels, but as a check against this the deck’s creatures are largely somewhat pedestrian affairs. As we’ll see, there are a couple of exceptions, but the secret of the Rebels’ success is that their tutoring works up the ladder, letting you chain increasingly powerful creatures off of even the humblest of them. If this tactic seems familiar, there’s a good reason- we saw it recently in the Birthing Pod-based Spiraling Doom Event Deck.
The Ramosian Sergeant kicks things off in the one-drop slot. A one-mana 1/1, the Sergeant can do little on her own, but for three mana she can get you any of your two-drops into play. The deck offers you three copies, so it’s a card you’ll frequently see. Here also we find a couple of non-Rebels in your Charm Peddlers, one of the deck’s two Spellshapers. The Charm Peddler gives you some ability to mitigate incoming damage to your creatures, at the cost of a card from hand. This can help save one of your critical Rebels from an untimely demise, and gives you good reason to play cards from the battlefield through your Rebels rather than just summoning straight from hand. The deck’s strategy is one of incremental advantage rather than White Weenie-style swarming, so the more you can hew to this strategy, the better the deck will tend to run.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find a couple of bridge creatures here in the Steadfast Guard and Ramosian Lieutenant. Neither of these are particularly game-changing on their own, but they serve as useful rungs in the ladder up the mana curve. The Guard is a Rebel, but one that has traded the ability to summon his fellows in return for vigiliance. Like the earlier Sergeant, the Lieutenant is the key to keep moving up the ladder, as he can propel you into your three-drops.
From there, the deck simply explodes into options. Here is the reward for the hard work of nurturing your weaker creatures turn to turn. You do get some toolbox functionality with a pair of protection creatures. The Nightwind Glider is ideal against a Black mage, while against a Red opponent you’ll want to grab its counterpart Thermal Glider. Both are 2/1 fliers that can be a real nuisance against the right opponent, and you get two copies of each.
Next up is the deck’s other Spellshaper, the Devout Witness. Though since she’s not a Rebel she can’t be recruited up, her repeatable Disenchants can give you tremendous flexibility and value for mana against an opponent leaning too heavily on one of those permanent types. You also get a pair of Task Forces, 1/3 Rebels that gain a fat defensive bonus if they’re the target of a spell or ability. Finally, we find our next bridge card in the form of the Ramosian Captain. Stronger than the Lieutenant and with first strike, it’s her ability to find your way to a four-drop that’s the most useful here.
The deck’s first rare card appears here, and it’s the leader of the Rebels. Cho-Manno, Revolutionary may be a humble 2/2, but as far as damage is concerned he’s immortal. This makes him a fearless attacker- albeit one of rather small stature- and an all-star defender. Against decks with loads of fat creatures, he can stall out your opponent’s best (non-trample) attacker turn after turn. Since his ability prevents all damage- not just combat damage- he’ll also give Red aggro decks fits by blocking and likely killing an attacker each turn, while laughing off any burn spell.
Also giving aggro-based strategies a headache are your Pious Warriors. These 2/3 Rebels have enough toughness to survive lesser skirmishes, and give you some incidental lifegain each time they’re dealt combat damage. If your deck is taking a little longer to get moving, this is a solid play to help blunt the stream of incoming damage and level yourself out. On a similar vein, we also find a couple of Ballista Squads here. These 2/2’s offer repeatable and scaleable damage to an attacking or blocking creature, and can help complicate your opponent’s attacking and blocking assignments. Additional bridging is available through the Ramosian Commander, which transitions us into our five-drops.
Those begin with a pair of Jhovall Riders, 3/3 tramplers which are a bit overpriced for what they provide. That said, there aren’t a ton of mid-size bodies at your disposal, so beggar’s can’t always be choosers. The Riders are also noteworthy for being members of a very select club. In the history of Magic, there have only been about a dozen mono-White creatures printed with trample. The last creature is the Ramosian Sky Marshal, the final of the recruiting Rebels. As an evasive 3/3 body, the Sky Marshal is just fine as an offensive threat, and the ability to grab any other Rebel in the deck is certainly helpful.
Power is Fragile
In our previous review of Disrupter, we noted that a somewhat inconsistent creature package was well-fortified by a very focused noncreature suite. Here, we find rather the opposite, with a less substantial collection of cards backing up the Rebels. Things start well enough with a bit of removal in the form of a couple of Arrests and an Afterlife. Some added removal is included in the form of a pair of Disenchants, though coming on the back of the pair of Devout Witnesses one is forced to wonder if artifacts or enchantments are really that big a threat in this environment (hint: probably not).
There’s also a very strong boost effect in the two Ramosian Rallies included here. These are part of the same cycle that gives you an alternative casting cost if you control a basic land of the appropriate colour (which was in place to prevent the type of colour bleeding we’d see much later in New Phyrexia). The boost is slight at +1/+1, but if you’ve managed to spend the game cranking out Rebels left right and center, it can turn a swarm into a critical and lethal mass at a stroke.
Cho-Manno’s Blessing is the latest in the line of instant-auras we saw with Maggot Therapy in Disrupter, and offers some proof against removal. It can also turn one of your creatures into an unblockable threat against an opponent leaving heavily on one colour or another, and in this mono-White deck it’s an easy cost to manage. Finally, there’s a one-off effect in the Moonlit Wake, which is a pure lifegain card that rewards you for creatures dying. Though the effect is broad-based and triggers on any creature’s demise- not just your own- it doesn’t serve much of a purpose here and can be disappointing when drawn later in the game.
Here again we also find a single copy of the nonbasic storage land, in this case the Fountain of Cho. Like the preceding deck, Rebel’s Call is relatively light on land, with only 20 Plains added to the Fountain. This is somewhat surprising given the mana demands of the deck’s Rebel chaining, but we’ll reserve judgment until weve had a chance to see the deck in action. We’ll put it through its paces, and return with a full report in two days.