Darksteel: Transference Review (Part 1 of 2)
In August of 2009, the second From the Vaults product was released to considerable fanfare. Unlike the previous From the Vaults: Dragons, this was a rogues’ gallery of sorts, a wretched hive of scum and villainy selected from throughout Magic’s long history. Some, like the Kird Ape or Serendib Efreet, seemed innocuous once removed from historical context. Others had a much more malignant pedigree.
Channel enabled one of the game’s earliest degenerate combos, where in conjunction with Fireball, a Mountain, and a touch of artifact mana a player could be burned out of the game without ever having drawn a card. Necropotence, on the other hand, took a little more time to develop. Initially kept in check by the classic Black Vise, once the Vise was stuck on the Banned & Restricted list the card-drawing engine was able to come into its own. It proved so powerful, so pervasive, that it utterly warped the metagame of the day. Indeed, Summer of 1996 was known as the “Black Summer” thanks to its dominance.
That might sound hauntingly familiar to any historian of the game, as we move next to Darksteel’s Skullclamp. The beneficiary of developmental oversight, the card stayed under the radar at Wizards until Arron Forsythe became suspicious of its power when designing builds for what would become the Nuts and Bolts Theme Deck for Fifth Dawn. By then the card was at the printers, and Wizards could only brace for impact. The tale in its completion is well worth a read, but it didn’t take long for Skullclamp to similarly warp the metagame, where every deck either ran the card or tried to beat it. One of the very worst offenders was a deck type called “Ravager Affinity.”
Ravager Affinity centered on the wicked synergy between a number of related cards, such as Disciple of the Vault, Shrapnel Blast, and, of course, Arcbound Ravager. This deck involved playing cheap artifacts (including the “artifact lands”), sacrificing them to make a large Arcbound Ravager while draining life through the Disciple, and buring out the battered opponent through the Blasts. To those familiar with the drawbacks of auras, this sounds risky- and like any combo deck it could be. But thanks to a particular mechanic, modular, the hard work done by the Ravager couldn’t necessarily be undone by a single piece of removal. It’s that mechanic, which allows the ‘transference’ of +1/+1 counters between artifact creatures on a death trigger, that is the backbone of today’s deck.
Strong as the Whole
Because so much of Transference’s strategy involves the modular mechanic, there’s very little left over after the creature suite. This is a fine example of how a Theme Deck compares to a modern Intro Pack, since it goes all-in on its particular theme rather than offering a more moderated approach. Of course, that one mechanic doesn’t tell the entire tale, and for that we’ll want to pay particular attention to the utility creatures, which stand in for the deck’s noncreature spell suite.
The deck begins aggressively enough with a full playset of Arcbound Workers. These are this set’s version of the typical one-drop sampler of a particular mechanic, along the same lines as Slitherhead in Return to Ravnica and Hada Freeblade in Worldwake. It’s a small version of the mechanic, but it’s one that came come out straightaway, and for that it has its uses even if its overall power level is on the smaller side.
Moving a rung up the curve, we find a flying version leading off the two-drops. The Arcbound Stinger is in every other respect the same, but a little evasion goes a long way in a build-a-beater type of deck. Whether it be with +1/+1 counters or with auras, decks where the objective is to craft a fatty benefit greatly from creatures that are difficult to block. In this case, though, you only get a pair of them, leaving room for some other cards with tricks of their own.
One of these is the Neurok Familiar. Another evasive 1/1, the Familiar gives some measure of card advantage by offering you the chance of nabbing a free artifact card. This should put you up a card just under half the time, though there’s a small combo on offer with one of the deck’s two rares, the Arcbound Reclaimer. Aside from that, Transference doesn’t give you any way to look at or adjust the card on top of your library, so most of the time it will just be a roll of the dice. It makes for an interesting study in design, hitting a sweet spot right between largely unplayable (a vanilla 1/1 flier) and too strong (a 1/1 flier that draws you a card). The deck gives you three to play with.
Here also is your first utility creature, the Vedalken Engineer. Ordinarily we associate “mana dorks” with Green, but here is a Blue one who offers a very impressive output of two mana. The caveat, of course, is that this is restricted to either casting or activating artifacts, but in a deck as packed with them as this that’s not much of a drawback. The deck’s final two-drop is a more defensive-minded inclusion in the Spincrusher. The poor Spincrusher has largely been consigned to making guest appearances on “hidden phalluses in Magic art” lists that crop up from time to time (we’re not making that up), but for the purposes of the deck it’s a 0/2 blocker that can be ‘charged up’ into something much stronger. Like a child’s toy that gets wound up before being released to zip across the floor, the Spincrusher can accumulate counters until it’s ready to ‘go off’ on your opponent, becoming unblockable at the cost of only a single +1/+1 counter. That’s a fairly strong option that can give your offensive-minded opponent some pause for thought before committing their forces to a ground game.
Moving on to the three-drop (yes, singular), we find a Neurok Transmuter. Another utility card, this one offers the alluring promise of mischief and shenanigans. Able to turn artifact creatures into ordinary Blue ones or ordinary creatures into artifact ones, it’s something of a “Rosetta Stone” card that translates between your artifact and nonartifact cards. Should your opponent try and Shatter an artifact creature, you can fizzle the spell by making the creature an ordinary Blue one. Alternately, if one of your modular creatures dies and you’d like to put the resultant +1/+1 counters on one of your ordinary Blue creatures, the Transmuter can make that happen as well. The deck can function just fine without him, but like any good tactics enabler it can do quite a bit more with him around.
Making up for the shortfall at the three-drops is the four-drop slot, where the deck explodes with a flurry of activity. Modular creatures come into their own here, with an array of options. The Arcbound Hybrid enters play as a 2/2 with haste, and is the most straightforward option. The Arcbound Crusher is just a 1/1 (technically, a 0/0 with a +1/+1 counter), but it gains a counter each time another artifact enters the battlefield- regardless of who played it! In the artifact-laden Mirrodin/Darksteel environment, the Crusher can live up to its name very quickly, and thanks to its trample it is a very relevant threat after a certain size.
Finally, we find the deck’s first rare here in the form of the Arcbound Reclaimer. The Reclaimer enters play as a 2/2, much like the Hybrid. Unlike the Hybrid, though, it’s not just an accumulator of +1/+1 counters Instead, it can cash them in to retrieve an artifact card back onto the top of your library. Though you still have to use a draw step to get it, being able to selectively recycle cards that have left play can be a very useful ability. Of course, the modular creatures only tell half the story.
It’s here that the deck’s beaters really begin to make themselves known, as up to this point they have been fairly small in size. The Cobalt Golem is a 2/3 with activateable evasion. Larger still is the Rust Elemental, a cheaper Air Elemental that offsets its discounted cost by requiring the sacrifice of an artifact each turn. This seems a high price to pay, but if you’re swinging in with a 4/4 in the air each turn, the game should find its conclusion before long.
For a more gound-based threat, we have the 5/3 Juggernaut. A reprint from the dawn of the game, the Juggernaut aggressively commits itself to battle each turn if able, and conveniently sidesteps any defenders your opponent might try to throw in its path. The Dross Scorpion is much more brittle- a 3/1- but unlike the Juggernaut it rewards you when it dies by untapping an artifact. Vitally, this ability triggers whenever any artifact creature is put into the graveyard, and that includes those controlled by your opponent. Finally, the Voltaic Construct riffs on the classic Voltaic Key from Urza’s Saga, letting you untap artifact creatures for only two mana.
From there, we find a few closers at the top of the mana curve, though by now you might well have constructed your own out of the smaller modular creatures you’ve played along the way. The Arcbound Bruiser is a straightforward option, modular 3 with no other abilities. The Arcbound Fiend has the same, but offers so much for for the one mana increase in cost. In addition to fear, it can lift a +1/+1 counter off of one of your creatures each upkeep, slowly and steadily gaining in size in a sort of techno-vampirism.
Next up is the Spire Golem, a 2/4 flier for six mana. Of course, thanks to affinity for Islands, you’ll never actually pay that steep a price for it. We’d seen this reprinted in Duel Decks: Jace vs Chandra where it was quite useful, and there’s no reason it won’t be just as so here. Finally, there’s the Arcbound Lancer, the largest of your modular creatures. In addition to coming into play with four +1/+1 counters, the Lancer also carries first strike. That’s a useful ability, though arguably the most useful of all in a build-a-bruiser deck is the trample that the Arcbound Crusher has, since it makes its +1/+1 counters that much more relevant. Still, the Lancer will be difficult to deal with, which for seven mana is what it would need to be.
A Tide of Disbelief
As mentioned above, Transference is a staggeringly-heavy creature deck, with only seven cards backing them up. Alarmingly, there’s very little removal on offer, with just a pair of Echoing Truths to help you sculpt the battlefield more to your liking. Instead, you’re going to have to depend on mounting enough of a creature-based threat that your opponent is the one reacting to you rather than the other way around. The only other spell here is the deck’s second rare, Reshape. A fixed version of Tinker from Urza’s Legacy, Reshape lets you effectively tutor up any single artifact you need from your deck right into play, at the cost of a card and an artifact. It’s no small price, but the flexibility it offers can be well worth it.
From there, the rest of the cards are utility artifacts. Ur-Golem’s Eye is a mana accelerant, helping you ramp to the top of your mana curve. Dragon Blood, meanwhile, dishes out +1/+1 counters for your creatures at the rate of up to one per turn. It’s not an inexpensive ability, but it can give you a place to put your mana when it lies fallow later in the game.
Finally, we come to a pair of Skullclamps, one of the game’s most infamous cards and subject of our opening. At the time that Transference was designed in R&D, the power of the card had yet to be realised. Although it doesn’t have quite the free reign needed to get the most from it, it’s still quite strong in a deck where your own creatures don’t entirely go to waste when they die. Cards like Arcbound Worker are cast in quite a different light when for one mana they draw you two cards and stick a +1/+1 counter on another creature. These were dark days for Wizards, but with the passage of time we are left to enjoy them for what they were in the preconstructed realm.
The deck also includes two Seats of the Synod, Blue’s ‘artifact land.’ Though cards like Rust Elemental and Neurok Familiar would certainly prefer to see the full playset available (as was the case with Mind Swarm), that might have been just a touch too much. Next, we’ll be looking at seeing the deck perform in the field, and we’ll be back in two days’ time for the full report. See you then!