Darksteel: Mind Swarm Review (Part 1 of 2)
In October of 2000, Wizards of the Coast released a new compilation set called Beatdown. Designed to highlight some of the biggest, fattest creatures in the history of the game, the two decks of this Duel Decks antecedent featured cards like the Ernham Djinn and Sengir Vampire, and encouraged play in the red zone with reckless abandon. Nestled amongst the other Red cards in the set was the game’s first-ever “Y-spell,” not counting anything with a silver border. Except it wasn’t a new spell- just an old one, re-costed.
That spell, of course, was the classic Red burn card, Fireball. In its earlier printings, it was simply an X-spell with a rider about additional targeting for more mana. With Beatdown, however, it was converted over to this: – a spell that dealt X damage to each of Y different targets. It was an odd fix to a card that always seemed a bit clunky to some, and as Fireball faded from active duty it fell into slumber in its modified form.
Four years later, however, Magic players who cracked open Darksteel booster pacts got to say hello to an old friend. Not only was Fireball back, but it had reverted to its more classic form, dropping the ‘Y’ from its casting cost. It was a welcome return, but as we’ll see it wasn’t all fun and good feelings. Fireball also brought with it cards that would usher in one of the darkest times in the history of Magic, and trigger a mass exodus of players leaving the game altogether.
For now, though, we’ll turn to the first of the set’s Theme Decks, Mind Swarm, to take a more idyllic and nuanced look at a set that might have been broken at the top, but nevertheless possessed a rich and deep vein of design.
Thirst for Blood
At its core, Mind Swarm can be broken down into two components, both of which are represented symbolically in the deck’s very name. Mind refers to the discard suite the deck carries, while Swarm indicates the general strategy it takes with its creatures. Put together, you have a deck that looks to overwhelm in the early to mid-game, while using disruption to keep an opponent off-balance and unable to regroup. Mix in a bit of removal for anything that does stick, and it’s a fairly solid recipe.
Things begin with eight cards in the two-drop slot. There’s a full playset of Leaden Myr, which helps the deck maintain some manabase consistency. With much of the deck aggressively priced, there are only 21 land available. These Myr are extra mana sources that also have the added relevance that being a creature can provide. From there you get a Slith Bloodletter, a 1/1 regenerator with the “Slith mechanic” of getting a +1/+1 cointer whenever it deals combat damage to a player. If that seems familiar, you’re not wrong- the Slith mechanic was updated in Innistrad block for many of the Vampires there, such as the Stromkirk Noble.
You also get a trio of Grimclaw Bats, the first of what will be a stream of fliers Mind Swarm will rely upon. In addition to the usual complement of creatures, the deck also has a number of them with evasion. This lets it continue the assault when an opponent has managed to stabilise and begin congesting the red zone. These Bats are small at 1/1, but their pump ability can provide a massive swing later in the game if you happen to be ahead on life. Indeed, it’s not often you’ll see a two-drop that can perform the role of the closer, but these Bats certainly are one- at least, under the right circumstances.
We find the first members of our discard package as we move to the three-drops in a trio of Chittering Rats. The Rats don’t force discard in the traditional sense, as your opponent’s card goes to the top of their library rather than their graveyard. While this does mean that they’ll still manage to get the card back, it does set them back a draw to do so. Compared to the classic card of this type, the Ravenous Rats, the Bear-sized body these leave behind is also somewhat relevant.
Up in the air we come upon a pair of Emissaries of Despair. These 2/1 fliers can do a lot of work in a specialised environment like Mirrodin’s, punishing them for playing a card type (artifacts) that are ubiquitous in the Theme Deck environment. None of the four Darksteel decks fail to field them, so extra damage is highly likely off of what is already a solid card. Although their 1 power renders them fragile, these are one of the deck’s star cards. Finally, there’s a single copy of Nim Replica here. The Replica offers a 3/1 body, and a minor dose of removal if needed in a pinch. It doesn’t come cheaply, but it’s an added bonus that might occasionally be useful.
A lone Scavenging Scarab is our only placeholder for the four-drops, a 3/3 with a blocking restriction. It’s neither splashy nor sexy, but about on-curve with what you’d expect to get in Black and is one of the deck’s largest beaters. From there we reach the top of the curve, and the first creature here is the Dross Golem. An evasive 3/2, you’ll never pay full price for this thanks to affinity for Swamps. Indeed, you’ll often be able to get it at a substantial discount, and begin hammering in early with it. That said, in most environments artifact creatures are the exception rather than the norm, but that’s not the case here in Mirrodin. That means that the Golem’s fear is less relevant than usual, and depending on the deck your opponent is playing often won’t be a factor. You get a trio of these all the same.
Next is the deck’s first rare, the Mephitic Ooze. A 0/5, the Ooze is another card that synergises with artifacts, getting +1/+0 for each one you control. It also kills anything it damages, and even prevents that creature from regenerating. Finally, there’s the deck’s single largest creature, the Clockwork Vorrac. That’s slightly misleading, since thanks to its clockwork nature it won’t remain a 4/4 for long (though you can restore it, or even pump it up higher if need be). Thanks to trample, you’re all but assured of getting your full money’s worth with each attack whether blocked or not. On the whole, though, this is a deck that’s happier to sneak through a window rather than bash down the front door, but the ability to do just that is never out of place.
Nightmares Catch Up
When you think of Weenie decks in the modern era- particularly White ones- one card type that is associated with them is equipment. As a noncreature permanent, they can often be a little harder to remove, and they can give their bonus to creature after creature. When one dies, suite up the next! Mind Swarm takes the same approach, with five pieces of it on offer. First up is the Bonesplitter, a cheap artifact that’s just as cheap to equip. Sure the bonus it provides can similarly be described as ‘cheap,’ but it makes up for that with its reusability and low cost. From a similar vein we find the Leonin Scimitar, which offers a more level +1/+1 rather than the Bonesplitter’s +2/+0, but with the same casting and equip costs.
The third “trinket” in the deck is the Leonin Bola. This one offers no stat boosts, instead granting sheer utility by turning its wielder into a tapper. Although it’s a touch cumbersome, unattaching when used is a very flavourful effect on a thrown weapon. For decks like this, relying on inexpensive creatures to rush the opponent, being able to take out a defender or two can often mean the difference between victory and defeat, and the Bola has an important role to play.
The final piece of equipment is the Specter’s Shroud, and the deck offers a pair of them. These offer a slight power boost, but that’s more of a secondary effect. Rather, the best effect the Shroud offers is to force a discard whenever its wielder deals combat damage to an opponent (the classic “specter” ability). The +1/+0 ability is there mainly to keep the artifact useful even when your opponent has no cards in hand, which is the objective for any dedicated discard deck.
Next we find the deck’s reasonable removal package. First up is a pair of Terrors. The classic Black removal since the start of the game, this is something of a clever reprint in the Mirrodin environment. It’s insightful to take a moment to note Mark Rosewater’s comments on the card and environment, in an article called When Good Cards Go Bad Revisited from this past October:
The first reason why bad cards are good design is that we, the game designers, aren’t supposed to make it easy for you. As such, we have a whole bag of tricks to make figuring out the game hard. One of those tricks is using first impressions to mislead. We know what has and hasn’t worked in the past so we know what prejudices the players are going to have. This allows us to make cards that play into these prejudices.
A very good example of this was something I did during original Mirrodin design. I put both Shatter and Terror in the set knowing that conventional wisdom was that Terror was very good and Shatter was pretty weak. Except that wasn’t the case in Mirrodin, In a world made of metal, and a set made of artifacts, Shatter was very powerful and Terror, which couldn’t kill artifact creatures, was powered down (it was merely good instead of great). The point of including them was the realization that you often should draft Shatter over Terror, something that had never been true before.
Rosewater is quite clear that that doesn’t make Terror a bad card here, but it does significantly tamp down its range of targets. If artifact creatures are giving you fits, you do at least have some other ways to dispatch them. Murderous Spoils isn’t cheap at six mana by even the most liberal of definitions, but its targeting restrictions are softened somewhat. For that extra mana, you also have the value proposition of stealing your opponent’s equipment. The problem with cards like this is that your opponent isn’t always going to oblige you by putting all of their equipment on their best creature, so there will occasionally be some difficult decisions to make.
If all that sounds like too many hoops to jump through, or your opponent is also playing Black, well, there’s always the single copy of Essence Drain. The upside here is that the Drain also hits opponents, giving you a rare bit of range in this sort of deck. On a similar note, you also have access to a pair of Relic Banes.
Relic Banes hearken back to cards from the game’s earliest days that bled out your opponent based on what types of cards they were playing. You could easily construct the core of such a deck with Psychic Venoms and Cursed Lands on their land, Feedbacks on their enchantments, Warp Artifacts on their artifacts, and-stretching to three colours here- Wanderlust on their creatures (or Creature Bond, if you went heavy on the removal). It wasn’t the most effective deck, but it was there and called to some (*cough* guilty). Here in Mind Swarm, it’s another way to set up a stream of life loss to help the deck get over the finish line, again a way to give the deck teeth after the red zone rush has been contained or fallen short.
Discard, which we’ve already seen supported through other cards in the deck, sees a solid boost here. A trio of Wrench Minds can offer you a two-for-one proposition should you catch your opponent without an artifact to discard (or if they choose not to), and you get a trio of them here. The deck’s second rare, Pulse of the Dross, is a superb inclusion. The prospect of repeatable discard is tantalising enough, but with a number of cheap cards Mind Swarm is well-positioned to get the most out of it, since you’ll often have played much of your hand out later in the game. Of course, it does have something of a shelf life to it, since a discard deck’s ultimate goal is to force the opponent to play off the top of their library, but often the threat of another Pulse will force them to use the cards they draw immediately rather than face losing them, leading to suboptimal choices and outcomes. Finally a pair of Geth’s Grimoires offer some reward for the strategy, though their higher cost as well as the fact that they do nothing on their own means they won’t always be a welcome sight.
The decks final card here is a Skeleton Shard, which lets you recur your artifact creatures from graveyard to hand. With less than half of your creatures being eligible for consideration, and many of these scantly worth the effort (see: Leaden Myr), this is less effective an option that it might seem. Still, if you manage to get both in play, you can set up a tasty loop with the Nim Replica.
It’s worth noting as well that the deck carries a full playset of artifact lands, the Vault of Whispers. Largely considered a design mistake due to affinity, the cards have a limited role in Mind Swarm. The only direct benefit they offer is to help pump up the Mephitic Ooze, and indeed there’s something of an opportunity cost to take on board when considering the negative synergy with the Dross Golems.
Discard-heavy decks aren’t often seen in the preconstructed realm, making Mind Swarm a particularly welcome treat. We’ll give it a run-out onto the pitch, and report back what we find. See you in two days!