Mercadian Masques: Tidal Mastery Review (Part 1 of 2)
Thus far we’ve focused on Mercadian Masques and the perception it- rightly or wrongly- has acquired over the years thanks to its lack of formally named mechanics. History has not been kind to the set, as the fact that it was openly mocked by flavour text on a Magic card, Un-set that it was. As we’ve also noted, the set was marked by a decidedly lower power level than the previous Urza Block. For fans of the Weatherlight Saga, however, this was a set not so easily dismissed.
We last saw the crew of the Weatherlight at the end of Exodus, as the ship plunged through a planar portal. The story was then paused for a year as we then moved into the “prequel” that was Urza Block, setting the stage for the convergence of narrative arcs beginning with Invasion. To get there, however, the tale had to have its second act, and thus we enter the plane of Mercadia.
As the story goes, the Weatherlight enters Mercadia and crash-lands, where it is captured by a tribe of rebels called the Cho-Arrim. While Gerrard and most of the rest of the crew are arrested by soldiers from Mercadia City, Orim remains with the ship- and her captors. As it happens, these rebels are a somewhat sympathetic bunch, spiritual and resisting the bonds of oppression the City seeks to cast over them. Brought up on charges, Gerrard is offered an unusual bargain: train a squad of Mercadian soldiers to help recapture the Weatherlight, and he will be free to leave with his ship and crew.
In the ensuing battle between the Cho-Arrim and Gerrard’s Mercadians, things spiral out of control. It’s not long before Gerrard, having tried in vain to temper the assault, finds himself back under house arrest, and some of the crew is tasked to head to the rival trading city of Saprazzo to find an artifact capable of restoring the ship.
If this seems all a bit of a muddle, you’re far from alone in thinking so. While the second act of the original Star Wars trilogy was arguably its best, Mercadian Masques seemed to suffer from a creative sophomore jinx. Still, it did boast of some interesting settings and destinations, and the city of Saprazzo- home to Merfolk who could change between legs and fins at will- is certainly amongst them. As it happens, it is also the setting of sorts for today’s deck!
More Than Just Swords
Tidal Mastery is a very different kind of deck from the ones we’ve seen thus far, and yet in some ways its strikingly similar. Disrupter sought to deny your opponent the resources they need to establish a presence in the game. Rebel’s Call used incremental advantage to overwhelm an opponent over the course of the match. Tidal Mastery, meanwhile, is a more traditionally White/Blue control-minded construction. It seeks to deny its opponent the luxury of efficacy, with a number of cards that stall the board out. It also ekes out raw card advantage, and once it has the game firmly in hand it can flip the switch from defensive to offensive and grind down an opponent. One can be forgiven, however, for seeing it as a rather motley assemblage.
First card up is the Cloud Sprite, and it’s a good example of some of the deck’s inconsistency in card quality and focus. A 1/1 flier for one mana, it’s somewhat useful as a first-turn play and goes downhill fairly quickly from there. Thanks to a couple of enchantments that turn your creatures into “saboteurs” (creatures which trigger a special ability when dealing combat damage to an opponent) or offer other passive benefits, the Sprite has a relevance in the later stages of the game it might never otherwise possess. Still, that’s fairly conditional, and it’s a poor draw in the absence of one or the other of those.
On to the two-drops, we find a couple of Crossbow Infantries. These are the first element we see of the deck’s desire to close down the red zone as an avenue of victory for your opponent. Although the 1 damage they ping for isn’t a lot, it can have a bit of a chilling effect on your opponent’s attacking when backed up with other cards in defense. Your opponent might hesitate in committing their 3/3 to the attack against your 2/2 if they know the Infantry will happily make it a trade. This is conditional, of course, but the deck is filled with such ways to dissuade your opponent from harming you. Another of these is the Darting Merfolk. Although not as dissuasive as the Infantry can be, the Merfolk can give you a blocker each turn that will vanish before damage is dealt, stalling out an attacker.
Next up is the Diplomatic Escort, another utility 1/1. This Spellshaper turns any card into your hand into an Intervene that also parries abilities. For the cost of keeping only one Island open, you can force your opponent to deal with the prospect of having to use two removal spells to dispatch a single threat, which given the value of removal isn’t an appetizing thought. Finally, we find our first rare in one of the deck’s all-stars, the Overtaker. A Spellshaper with an extremely potent offering, the Overtaker essentially gives you access to a Ray of Command each turn. At sorcery speed, this would still be good enough to run here, but at instant speed it’s absolutely brutal. With this guy up, your opponent has to consider each attack phase as an opportunity for you to block one of their attackers with another one of their creatures. Being tapped is no protection- the effect untaps it at the outset. Once you’re ready to go on the offensive you then get to steal their best creature and club them in the dome with it each turn as well. While four mana is no small price to pay, it is well worth it here.
We find a number of other options amongst the three-drops. A Devout Witness gives us access to a repeatable Disenchant, while the Alabaster Wall is a Samite Healer stuck inside a robust 0/4 defender. This reinforces the deck’s desire to keep the red zone as unprofitable as possible for any opponent, a theme we’ll continue to refer to. You also have access to a Cho-Arrim Legate.
The Legates are a cycle of creatures that can be played for free under certain conditions, depending on what your opponent is playing. They vary between poor and terrible, and the Cho-Arrim model falls on the bad end of that spectrum. When assessing this card, it’s important not to look at the “hey, free card!” aspect of it, and more to what you’ll get all the times your opponent isn’t playing Black. A three-mana 1/2 is a terrible deal, especially in White- a colour known for early-game creature efficiency.
Lastly in this slot we have a pair of Drake Hatchlings. 1/3 fliers that can be pumped once into 2/3’s, they’re sturdy enough on the back-end to blunt any incoming aerial damage, while still offering some viable damage options in return. The Drake offers an interesting contrast with our next creature, the Saprazzan Legate. Also a 1/3 flier, the Legate has no additional ability to pump up its power like the Hatchling does. What it does have, however, is the Legate’s ability to be played for free. Thanks to evasion, this is one of the more playable of the Legates, though you’re still not going to feel warm inside getting that little return for four mana.
Also here is a single copy of Ballista Squad, another confound-the-red-zone card. With the ability to kill an attacker or blocker limited only by the amount of mana you have at your disposal, this Squad can exert a good deal of influence over the battlefield. Even when conditional, repeatable removal is not to be taken lightly. Finally, there’s a trio of Stinging Barriers. If the Alabaster Wall is a 0/4 Wall with a Samite Healer trapped inside, the Barrier is one with a Prodigal Sorcerer. These are amongst the deck’s linchpin creatures, blocking incoming beaters while picking off the wounded or steadily chipping away at your opponent’s life total turn after turn.
Source of Strength
The deck’s noncreature component is as varied and inconsistent as its creatures, which often makes for high replay value but often at the cost of reliability. That isn’t to say that there are no identifiable clusters of cards. Countermagic, for instance, is represented by a pair of Counterspells. The classic two-mana counter from the dawn of the game, Mercadian Masques would mark the end of an era. Although Counterspells would find a home through Seventh Edition, this was the last Fall set they’d be printed in. There’s also a single copy of Thwart here, which is part of the alternative-casting-cost cycle of cards Mercadian Masques offered such as Snuff Out. The price is steep- three lands- but as the popularity of Alliances’ Force of Will illustrates, there’s a high value in being able to cast a counterspell even when tapped out.
The deck’s removal package consists of a couple of Afterlifes. That isn’t much, but it’s worth noting that the object of the deck isn’t so much to kill as it is to confound. There are also a number of creature cards in the deck that bring some lethality of their own, like the Ballista Squad. You also have access to a pair of Disenchants, which alongside the Devout Witness should help with any artifacts or enchantments that are proving themselves a nuisance. From here, things start to get especially varied.
Story Circle and War Tax are two more cards that act as brakes on your opponent’s pace. The Story Circle is an updated Circle of Protection that trades ease of casting and use for flexibility. Rather than having to hope you’ve included the right colour of Circle- or simply used it as a sideboard option- the Story Circle allows for useful maindecking regardless of what you’re up against. War Tax is a variant on Propaganda that lets you set the level of ‘tax’ that must be paid in order to attack you. Although that lets you set a higher level than Propaganda, the trade-off is that you must pay to activate it each time, whereas once you cast Propaganda you didn’t have to sink any more mana into it.
Creature augments get their day in a few other cards here. There’s a copy of Ramosian Rally, which gives your side a flat +1/+1 bonus. Puffer Extract gives one of your creatures a +X/+X bonus, though with the drawback that the creature dies at the end of the turn. This prevents you from overusing it, but is a great mana sink to help finish off an opponent if you have a creature get through for damage. There are an additional two permanents that provide passive bonuses to your beaters: Noble Purpose and Coastal Piracy. The former essentially grants lifelink to your side, while the latter turns them all into Thieving Magpies.
The deck’s final two cards offer some library interaction. Customs Depot is another enchantment that lets you tack on a looting rider to every creature card you play for just one more mana. This is useful as it lets you dig through your library quicker, keeping the cards you need and getting rid of what you don’t. The deck’s other rare, Kyren Archive, acts as a second hand. You get to exile a card per turn to it from your library, then can cash in your hand later on to nab all the cards you’d exiled. This is useful, but very slow going. It also costs a tidy sum of mana to activate, giving you little left over to cast your new spells with.
Of the three decks we’ve looked at thus far, this one looks the least promising. It seems inconsistent, a collection of cards rather than a unified deck, but still one we’d like to test. Will the stalling strategy be one that pays off, or will the deck’s patchwork crazyquilt become unraveled?
While the first boosters I ever picked up where in the Urza’s cycle, back when I started magic in school and nobody knew the rules, the first actual deck I brought was nemesis, directly after Masques. So while I didn’t exactly start with Masques itself, you could say I started magic in the Masques block.
Last year when I was discussing the game with one of my friends who started in Zendikar and I was trying to demonstrate to him why the Urza’s block was considered so powerful, I had an interesting thought. The claim of power creep is a common one in magic, but I also realized that people just below my age probably started playing after Maques, which was considered a weak set. In some ways, you could make the argument that Urza’s block was such a leap forward in card strength, that Wizards slammed the breaks down hard on the following set. Looking at the Urza block now, especially as some of the cards from it have been reprinted in modern sets, the majority of its does not seem that far off from the allegedly overpowered cards of today’s sets. Arguably, ‘powercreep’ is a relative phenomenon, dependent on what set you started with and what has changed since.
In addition, some of the cards from sets like these are difficult to compare as the rules have changed. The Darting Merfolk, for example, was a pretty nasty bugger when damage stacked. With the other ‘pingers’ in this deck, stackable damage would have probably often seen the merfolk deliver the final blow to large threats in decks like this, before ‘leaping’ back to the safety of the hand. Today the effect is still useful for chump-blocking, but the darter and similar creatures are no longer the ‘assassins’ they once were.
Anywho, back to me. When I started the game, like many other newer player’s I have seen, Red/Green was the big draw to me as it was a straight forward “punch them to death” combination for the most part. Conversely, White/Blue decks where they bane of my existence. As a new player, the frustration of playing against white/blue actually put me off the color combination completely. So a deck like this one, I would have avoided buying at all cost.
That said, I am curious to see how this plays out in part two. There are certainly some decent cards here, like the Overtaker, so it will be interesting to see if the disjointed nature of the deck hinders its ‘controlly’ goals
This deck doesn’t look too impressive on paper, but wow, three Stinging Barriers? I seem to recall that card being an all-start in Masques draft online.
It will be interesting to see how this deck performs. There is a bit of mish mash with the cards, but there are some really good ones likes Overtaker, Story Circle, and War Tax. They could really swing the game, or at least give you a lot of board stall.