Mercadian Masques: Deepwood Menace Review (Part 1 of 2)
Probably moreso than any other single person, lead designer Mark Rosewater is the public face of Magic. Through his Twitter and Tumblr accounts as well as his “Drive to Work” weekly solo podcast, he stays connected on a near-daily basis to the fans and players of the game. That isn’t to say, though, that he has that market wrapped up, and it is just as interesting to see some of the ways other members of Wizards connect with the community.
One of the more ambitious such initiatives in recent time was the “Aaron’s Random Card Comment of the Day.” Launched at the end of September in 2010, the premise was a simple one: each day (or so), Director of R&D Aaron Forsythe would head over to Gatherer and click the “Random Card” link. Then he’d leave a commend on the card in question, showing some insights into the design philosophy that made it, some historical context around the card, or other ways that highlighted the relevance of that day’s card. His comments were frank and often snarkily humourous. A few excerpts:
We’ve seen this type of effect countless times, the most memorable (and fun) of them being Grip of Chaos and Confusion in the Ranks. I consider those two “fun” because there is a winner and a loser every time the enchantment triggers. I trade you my piece of junk for your awesome creature, or we all hold our breath to see who is getting whacked with the big Fireball. Planar Chaos doesn’t have any upside like that; you are flipping coins to chose between “normal” and “awful.”
Never before had a set so polarized our audience: the long-time and high-level players loved it, and the low-level and newer players shied away from it like the plague (sliver).
Look at Plated Pegasus. It has a “time” mechanic, flash. It references one little-known card in its mechanics (Mirage’s Benevolent Unicorn… look it up) and another in its creative (Tempest’s Armored Pegasus… look that one up, too). Who gets that payoff? Certainly not the vast majority of the audience. So much of the set is put together like that it’s almost criminal in retrospect. Does the card stand on its own? Not all that well. I certainly can’t imagine putting it into another set. Luckily the card Grapeshot ended up being a major player in the format, giving the Pegasus a dream.
I included Uncle Istvan on the Time Spiral “timeshifted” sheet because he’s so off-kilter, out of the color pie, and abnormal creatively that he’s memorable–a reminder of how odd some cards were all those years ago. The people that put him in Fourth Edition, I believe, did so because they thought he was a good, representative card that should be an ongoing part of Magic. Sheesh.
My guess is that the people putting together Fourth Edition included Uncle Istvan because, “Hey, he’s Uncle Istvan! Everyone loves Uncle Istvan! Oh, man, he’s awesome!”
How to put this… This card is a dumpster fire.
Finally, that brings us to the very insightful remarks for Mercadia’s Downfall
Mercadia’s Downfall? Seriously? Is this some kind of joke? Trust me, the downfalls of Mercadia cannot be summarized on a single card…
Of course, Masques was meant to be a conscious resetting of the game’s overall power level on the heels of the broken Urza’s block, so it is quite possible that many cards in the set were made worse “just to be safe” or “just because.”
The remainder of his comments on the card- dealing with the Standard environment of the time and the power level of this card within it- are quite illuminating into the thought process of the age. Nevertheless, it reinforces the idea that Mercadian Masques is a difficult set to love. Creatively, it was not Wizards’ best work, and faltered a bit on the momentum of the epic “Rath Cycle” that had begun with Weatherlight/Tempest. Mechanically, it flew very much under teh radar with no new named mechanics. Though there was innovation aplenty, Wizards would later come to understand that by not naming them, they rendered them much more difficult to detect by the playerbase.
Successive sets would illustrate the degree to which Wizards has learned from its failures, as sets like Homelands or Mercadian Masques tend not to be seen again. What’s interesting too is that beyond the obvious shortcomings, there are some things within these sets that still resonate with players. For Homelands, it was the heavy emphasis on flavour, as discussed on the most recent Drive to Work. For Masques, that involved a more nuanced appreciation of the “unnamed mechanics” like the Spellshapers. On that note, we bring our look at the set to a close, and move on to today’s deck, the last of the set.
Consume the Losers
Deepwood Menace is a Red/Green deck, which in the realm of the preconstructed typically means ramping into fat creatures backed up by burn spells. Although this deck takes elements of that strategy, it chooses instead to go in a different direction. There’s ramp and burn, but the “fattest” creature on deck is reliably a 3/3 or 2/4- though there is one */* creature which under the right circumstances can grow even larger still. The point of the deck isn’t to work into big beaters, but rather to overwhelm with a steady stream of smaller ones. In other words, it relies on the more traditional aggro strategy evinced in mono-colour decks.
To begin with, it hosts a raft of one-drops that let you get out in front of an opponent early. The Deepwood Wolverine is an aggressively-minded 1/1 that swells to a 3/1 when blocked. Although it still retains all of its fragility, that can make it a tricky prospect to block. You get three of them here, and there are also a pair of Kris Mages. Unlike the Wolverine, the Kris Mage does her best work outside the red zone, giving you a repeatable ping. Those spoiled by cards like the Prodigal Pyromancer might find the activation cost prohibitively steep- madness wouldn’t come into being for another couple of years in 2002’s Torment- but it does give you an extra use for surplus land drawn later in the game, and she is much cheaper to play.
Another toned-down Spellshaper appears as we move to the two-drops, the Deepwood Drummer. While some Spellshapers we’ve seen have been offering full-flavour spells at the expense of a card (for instance, Bog Witch offers a Dark Ritual), some others have seen their powers toned down a touch in Spellshaper form. The Kris Mage above is one such example, giving half-Shocks. The Drummer makes a very Green staple available- Giant Growth– but only at two-thirds effectiveness. Still, it’s difficult to underestimate the impact that on-board combat tricks can have when your opponent is doing the arithmetic in their head that determines combat decisions and effectiveness. Attack with a pair of 2/2’s in play alongside the Drummer, and if all they’ve got is a 3/3 they might well be letting you in for damage until they can find a better answer. Indeed, often you won’t even have to activate the Drummer to get the most out of him.
Moving on, we find a trio of Vine Trellises rounding out the drop slot. These are 0/4’s that can absorb a solid amount of damage, but also act as mana ramp to help you cast your more expensive cards. This seems slightly misplaced here, as defender cards are a bit of a misfit for aggro decks, while ramping cards aren’t as crucial to this sort of strategy as they are to Green Stompy. Still, they can help you get to the top of your curve a little faster, as well as enable you to power out multiple threats a turn. There’s also one more use for them, which is letting you cast Natural Affinity without tying up three lands to do so.
The three-drop slot is fairly spartan, with just a trio of Horned Trolls. These aren’t anything special, but fill a hole in the deck (and did see reprinting in Eighth Edition). Regeneration is a versatile ability on both offense and defense, as it lets you attack with the creature fearlessly or let it chump block ad infinitum- at least so long as its foe doesn’t have trample.
Things pick back up apace with the four-drops, though, with a number of different options to choose from. Some on-board burn is available thanks to Shock Troops and Cinder Elementals. This burn-on-a-stick duo was last seen performing together in Disrupter, and they’ve taken their act on the road. Two copies of each ensure that you’ll have extra recourse to burn throughout the course of the game.
You also get a pair of Saber Ants, 2/3 bodies with a nifty trick. Whenever they’re damaged, they gain you 1/1 Insect tokens equal to the amount of that damage. It’s nice if the Saber Ants survive the experience, but don’t hesitate to throw them in the path of an onrushing fattie, either, if you can make better use of the flood of Insect tokens that follows. There’s even an amusing comment on their Gatherer page where one reader comment explains how you can use this card to attack for 169 damage on turn 4.
Not quite so breakable is the last card here, the Squallmonger. The Mongers are a cycle of creatures that, like the Spellshapers, offer staple spell effects for an activated cost. Unlike the Spellshapers, though, they don’t require the price of a card, and there’s one other crucial difference: any player can activate them. They were originally given the creature type “Monger,” until Wizards went back and reclassified all of the creatures to be in line with modern standards. Given the art associated with this cycle, though, the result ended up rather curiously. The Warmonger became a Minotaur Monger, while the Sailmonger is a Human one. These were the easy ones, and it only went downhill from there. Wishmonger became a Unicorn Monger, and Scandalmonger a Boar Monger. It’s hard to know which of the two is more absurd, but the Squallmonger seems to have defied the creative minds at Wizards- it’s just a “Monger.” However you classify it, this is a card that must be played with care given that either player can take advantage of it, and it damages both players. Find yourself down in life and your opponent up on mana, and you could find yourself burned out by your own creature.
The top of the deck’s curve comes with five-drops, and only a trio of them. Two of these are Deepwood Tantivs, 2/4 Beasts that carry an intriguing blocking drawback for your opponent. Their stout toughness ensure that they can survive a combat or two as well, should your opponent opt to block. The last creature in your deck is the deck’s first rare, Battle Squadron. Although conditional, the deck’s heavy creature component (and environment’s lack of sweepers) should help ensure that this is of a substantial size when it hits the table much of the time. Thanks to evasion, it will be a must-answer threat- a fitting cap to the deck’s creature package.
The noncreature support suite of the deck isn’t large- only a dozen cards- but it’s nicely focused. Burn and removal take the lion’s share, which is always welcome. First up are a trio of Thunderclaps. Lightning Bolt variants, in exchange for costing a couple of mana more they can be cast without using any mana at all. Reminiscent of Visions’ Fireblast (though sadly limited to creatures), it’s an excellent option in the deck and you get three of them. Volcanic Wind is a more open-ended damage spell that is conditional in its effect, doing more damage the more creatures that are on the board. There’s also a single copy of Lunge, another instant-speed burn spell. Unlike the previous two, this one does deal damage to a player as well.
Not to be outdone, Green weighs in here as well with a pair of Desert Twisters. Originally from Arabian Nights and sparingly reprinted since, they cost a sizable sum but can destroy any permanent in play. You also have recourse to a copy of Tranquility, which can help clear away any pesky enchantments (particularly effective against Tidal Mastery).
The remaining cards here are all Green. Revive lets you salvage any Green card from your graveyard to hand, and has seen a rare reprinting as recently as Magic 2013. Tiger Claws is the Green entry in the cycle of “instant auras” that Masques boasts, giving its target +1/+1 and trample. Finally, a Natural Affinity can help set up a game-winning alpha strike by converting your land to additional creatures. As an instant, you can also use it defensively to turn an attack into a rout for your opponent, since their own land-creatures will be largely irrelevant by the time you cast it.
Overall, this looks like a welcome update of the Green/Red archetype, and we’re eager to see how it performs in the field. We’ll be back in two days to render a final verdict!