Magic 2014: Death Reaper Review (Part 1 of 2)
Thus far in our walk through Magic 2014, we’ve found that the decks hew fairly conventionally towards what is increasingly becoming a standard core set formula of showcasing two different aspects or themes of the colour pairing. The first deck we looked at, Lightforce, paired a lifegain strategy with an aura-based one. Though Bestial Strength was a bit more conventional in nature, Death Reaper picks right up where Lightforce left off.
On the face of it, the deck looks like an aggressive pairing of Black and Red, a deck aimed at directing overwhelming force across the table early on and never letting up. That’s certainly one aspect of it, even as the high land content of 25 lands doesn’t entirely support such ambition- especially considering the reasonable cost of the deck overall. Were we to stop there, however, we wouldn’t be telling the full tale. As it happens, there’s a subtheme that winds its way throughout the deck. Whereas in Lightforce we found a path divergent, here the subtheme exists to reinforce the deck’s attacking element.
What’s in a name? Death Reaper is about to tell us.
Gruesome in the Light of Day
The deck begins with a slate of one-drops that are combo pieces to the last. The first of these is the Festering Newt, and the deck offers you a trio of them. The Newt is part of a three-card combination in Magic 2014, and happily both other components are present in the deck: the Bubbling Cauldron (at uncommon), and the rare Bogbrew Witch. This recalls the Magic 2012 deck Grab for Power, which featured a set-up of Crown of Empires, Scepter of Empires, and Throne of Empires. This time around, we have a Salamander that gets more deadly with the Witch in play, a Cauldron that gets stronger with the Newt in play, and a Witch that can help find either one of them.
The payoff for the Empires trilogy was quite a bit better, as activating all three let you steal a creature permanently, blast an opponent for 3 damage, and field a small army of five 1/1 Soldier tokens. Of course, to get the accelerated bonus you had to have all three in play, whereas with the Bogbrew cycle you can have as few as two. It’s a great trio of cards to include here, and gives extra points to the deck.
The other one-drop is the Tenacious Dead, which is this set’s Reassembling Skeleton. The Skeleton in its day served two useful functions. First, it was a recurring blocker to help slow down your opponent’s attack. Second, it was great with sacrifice outlets, since you could sacrifice it over and over again as long as you had the mana- and perhaps even do it all over again turn after turn! The Dead’s window of opportunity is considerably narrower- you must do it when it dies, or the chance is gone. This is not unlike the recover mechanic featured in the Beyond the Grave Theme Deck, and- considering how many sacrifice outlets this deck features- the outcome for failure is much the same. Keep this alive as best you can.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find a familiar face in the Child of Night, a frequent inclusion in base-Black Intro Packs as of late. If it’s more life you’re after, there’s also a pair of Gnawing Zombies. Another of the deck’s many sacrifice outlets, these siphon a life each time they’re activated. It’s not an efficient loop in tandem with the Dead- four mana to come full circle- but later in the game when mana is more abundant and things to do with it more dear, it’s not a bad little trick to pull.
More sacrifice shenanigans abound with the deck’s first three-drop, the Blood Bairn. A ‘fixed’ version of the Vampire Aristocrat that sorts out the ambiguity caused by letting the Aristocrat sacrifice itself its own ability, the Bairn is otherwise quite straightforward. A pair of Undead Minotaurs offer some midrange muscle as a 2/3, showcasing the recent move in asymmmetry in Black favouring power to that favouring toughness. Our first Red cards appear with the Academy Raiders. These 1/1’s are difficult to block thanks to intimidate, and at this price they’d be almost useless without it given the fragility of their bodies. Just as the Minotaur showcases the recent move in power/toughness ratios in Black, the Raiders give us another look at Red card drawing. Naturally, you have to throw something away before getting to draw, which sets it apart thematically from the more traditional Blue looting.
As we ascend to the deck’s trio of four-drops, things really begin to blossom. The Deathgaze Cockatrice is the most pedestrian of the lot, offering deathtouch on a flying 2/2 body. Then there’s the aforementioned Bogbrew Witch, the card that brings her combo all together. Finally, we find the deck’s foil premium rare, Liliana’s Reaver. Another in the line of planeswalker-themed cards, the Reaver is simply another Specter without the wings. In lieu of flying, this one gives you a 2/2 Zombie creature token each time it connects- regardless of whether or not your opponent has a card to discard to it. Often players can play around discard by emptying their hand and playing off the top of the library, and the Reaver avoids that pitfall quite nicely by giving you value regardless.
Finally at the top of the mana curve, the deck offers up its closing options. The best of these are a pair of Sengir Vampires, thanks to their evasion. A classic in Black, they are quite welcome here as uncommons. Then there’s the Minotaur Abomination, which effectively is a pair of Undead Minotaurs stapled together- right down to the actual mana cost. It’s a stout and sturdy body, and its high toughness will make it very hard to kill in the red zone or otherwise.
Finally, the Vampire Warlord calls back the 4/2 body we so often see in Black (from Dread Drone to Nether Horror). Again, the regeneration ability of the Warlord is another way to dispose of bodies in the deck, whether they are yours or- as we’re about to see- your opponent’s.
As Fragile as Flesh
As you’d hope, much of the noncreature supporting suite is given over to removal spells. Hold on to your hats, though, as Doom Blade is not amongst them. In fact, there’s not a single outright kill spell in the lot, though that isn’t to say you don’t have some recourse to destruction.
A pair of Corrupts make a nice return here, giving you the ability not only to kill off a nettlesome creature, but to blast your opponent as well. Wring Flesh, meanwhile, doesn’t carry a lot of killpower behind it on its own, but instead must typically be used in tandem with a creature to take care of larger threats. It’s cheap for a single Black mana, and the deck gives you a trio of them.
By way of contrast, Red offers you three Thunder Strikes. This is another suboptimal inclusion, as we’d naturally just prefer some Shocks here. Instead, you get a spell that is conditionally useful, but not all that pinpoint. It can keep a creature alive on the attack, or through a defender become an ersatz removal spell, but this isn’t a deck that wants to hold a lot of creatures back on defense.
A miser’s copy of Smelt gives you some recourse to deal with artifacts, and Barrage of Expendables is yet another sacrifice outlet, this being one that applies direct damage one ping at a time. This lets it combo well with the Tenacious Dead, but it also goes well with your Act of Treason. Given the number of sac outlets available to you, the Act should most often be a one-way ticket for the commandeered creature.
A pair of artifacts round the deck out. There’s a Staff of the Death Magus, of course, as each of the set’s five decks carries their respective version. There’s also a Bubbling Cauldron, which is the third leg of the combo with the Newt and Witch. The lifegain aspect if the card outwith the Newt isn’t all that great, but its a delightfully flavourful card in a set that has more than a few little such treasures.
We’ll take the deck for a go to see how it stacks up against real opposition, and will return in two days’ time with a verdict!