Battle for Zendikar: Eldrazi Assault Review (Part 1 of 2)
Happy New Year and welcome back to Ertai’s Lament!
That latter greeting probably applies as much to me as to anyone else, since the last time I reviewed a deck here was on 17 July, 2013- over two years ago.
Welcome to small business ownership! As much as I’d wanted to continue writing here, I just ran out of time by the end of the day. Indeed, you’ll never find yourself gaming less than when you actually own the store where gaming happens. My time was torn between running a business, continuing my “day-job” career, and- most importantly- being a father.
When I wrote that partial review of M14’s Death Reaper back in July of 2013, my wife and only two stepchildren (hers) and one child between us. Soon after the Lament went dark, we had twins. Eight months ago, we had another when our daughter Ruari came into the world.
I’ve been a much-blessed man, but somewhere along the line I began to drown in my blessings. With Ruari on her way, I realized that I’d been struggling to be the father I wanted to be, and the store owner I needed to be. Something had to give, and this past July I sold the store. Naturally, it wasn’t even close.
It was an amazing experience, I leave the industry having learned a ton, and I’m now able to come home every night and hold my children. My blessings feel like blessings again, rather than burdens.
And- surprise- the urge to chronicle the unfolding history of Magic: the Gathering through the museum pieces we call preconstructed decks has begun to return as well.
I’ve missed this game, and these decks! And if my continuing traffic is any indication, it seems many of you have as well.
In fairness, this isn’t a full resumption of services. My old sparring partner, my stepdaughter Samantha, has grown up and left the home. I’ll be looking for some friends locally to throw cards with as I crank the site back up. In the past every review was a two-parter (1: Analysis, 2: Playtest/conclusion). That format will continue, but you might see a string of 1’s before a batch of 2’s. That will let me play a bunch of games in bursts when the opportunity’s there to do so.
In addition, for three years or so I put up an article every 48 hours. I can’t begin to match that pace right now, nor do I wish to. Ertai’s Lament won’t have a regular release schedule for awhile, but I’ll write as often as I can. I’d like to think I can at least keep pace with new releases, but we’ll see how it goes.
Finally, special thanks to the many of you that reached out to me while the site was dark to check in and let me know how much you enjoyed Ertai’s Lament and the world of preconstructed Magic. It’s time to start exploring some more!
And on that note, what more fitting place to begin than with a return to the plane of Zendikar? Our deck today is Eldrazi Assault, nominally Red and Black but, as we’ll see, in truth devoid of color.
Each Drone a Deadly Threat
The deck leads off with a pair of token one-drops, though these aren’t as generally throwaway as is often the case for two reasons. First, the Sludge Crawler has ingest, allowing it to bring the deck’s exile-zone options to bear. There aren’t many, but they let the deck pack a little extra punch.
The other thing that lends the Crawler late-stage relevance is the pumpability. It’s not cheap at two mana, but it adds toughness as well as power. It never hurts to have a place to dump excess mana later in the game, so this pair of Crawler’s is a fairly useful card if not a glamorous one.
Moving on to the two-drops, we open with a trio of Culling Drones, which are essentially Grizzly Bears with a twist. In this case, that’s the devoid attribute and the ingest keyword. Like the Crawler before it, the ingest serves as a synergistic enabler for other cards in the deck, but otherwise this is a fairly generic card.
Things get a little spicier with the Forerunner of Slaughter. Thanks to the two colors of mana in the casting cost, you get a little more bang for the buck as a 3/2. As a vanilla creature that’s perfectly acceptable, but the Forerunner also offers the ability to give a colorless creature haste for an extra mana.
Finally, a pair of Kozilek’s Sentinels round out your two-drop options. The Sentinel is representative of a type of creature- typically Red- that starts with a tepid offense but when certain spells are cast gains a temporary boost (see: Kiln Fiend). In this case, it’s colorless spells. With every one you cast- and make no mistake, every spell in the deck be it creature or otherwise is devoid– you’ll get an offensive boost to the front-end of a relatively survivable creature.
The two-drops are the most numerous segment of the deck’s creatures, but not by much. Indeed, with almost as many three- and four-drops, Eldrazi Assault will enable you to chain threats together turn after turn. In fact, you’ll need to, if you’re going to get the most of your Vile Aggregate.
This creature fits another frequently-employed archetype, and subtly encourages you to play to the deck’s strengths. That archetype, of course, is the *-powered beater, where the power is determined by some battlefield condition. This was seen recently in cards like Kolaghan Forerunners from Dragons of Tarkir, and as far back as Ice Age’s Pestilence Rats.
In the Aggregate’s case, it looks for the number of colorless creatures you control, which is just what you’d like in a deck packed with them. The 5 toughness means that the Aggregate is quite survivable as well, and can often attack without fear of trading out (or defend should the tides of battle dictate). The deck gives you two.
Cut from similar cloth is the Dominator Drone, another two-of three-drop. The Drone is a 3/2 body with a couple of twists. First, it has ingest as well as the de rigeur characteristic of devoid. But that’s now where the tricks end, as you can hit your opponent for a bonus 2 points of damage (technically, life loss) if you control another colorless creature. It’s a one-time effect, but a nice bit of reach across the table.
Additional reach is provided in the deck’s final three-drop, the Nettle Drone. Although its stats are lopsided in favor of aggressive attack, much of the work you’ll get from the Drone will be done from across the table. The Nettle Drone, you see, is a super-pinger, able to tap for a single point of damage to each opponent (relevant in multiplayer). In addition, whenever you cast a colorless spell, you get to untap the Drone for another go!
This lets you swing in for 3 if the coast is clear, then still tack on some additional damage through pinging after resetting the Drone with a colorless spell. Eldrazi Assault is rather instant-light, but in a pinch you can also cast one to turn the Drone into an ambush defender to trade out with an opposing creature.
We continue to have a host of options as we enter the four-drops. It’s at this point that you typically start to look for cards that can change the course of the game, and Eldrazi Assault has some serviceable options. First of these is the Vestige of Emrakul, a 3/4 trampler. There’s nothing unusual about the Vestige (aside from the ubiquitous devoid), but it’s a solid body to to add to the field. With three in the deck, you’ll be playing these regularly.
The Mind Raker is only slightly smaller- only a 3/3- and it lacks some of the combat acumen of the Vestige. Nevertheless, it’s got a little trick up its slithery sleeve: when it enters the battlefield, if you take a card your opponent owns out of exile and put it in the graveyard, they must discard a card.
Now we see the first synergy with ingest, which hopefully has been putting a few of your opponent’s cards into exile. By the turns 4-5 roll around and the Raker becomes an option, you have a good chance of being able to trigger the special ability (it’s a mediocre card otherwise). Putting you up a 3/3 body and your opponent down a card in hand at the same stroke is worth the investment.
Finally, the singleton Silent Skimmer offers you a token presence in the air. This is a curious card, with some strengths and weaknesses. The obvious disadvantage is that its 0 power means you’re not killing anything you run into. Whether blocked or being blocked, the Skimmer poses no threat to your opponent’s creatures.
That said, by the time blockers are declared after you’ve attacked with it, the damage has already been done. Much like Worldwake’s Pulse Tracker, the value of the card is in its ability to deal unblockable damage. It doesn’t matter how many blockers your opponent has; if they’re sitting on 2 life when you untap, unless they have instant-speed removal the game is all but yours.
The final creature in the deck is the Barrage Tyrant. The Tyrant evokes the same flavor as the classic Stone Giant– it’s picking up one of your other creatures and hurling them at the enemy- but while its victims are more restricted (colorless creatures only), it hurls with a far greater precision.
Whereas the Stone Giant only gives the creature flying, the Tyrant gets to deal damage directly to a target of your choice. And while this act of involuntary martyrdom requires the payment of mana, it does not require tapping the Tyrant. That means with sufficient mana, you can throw multiple creatures across the table in a turn, and close out the game. It’s a solid closer option reminiscent of Rise of the Eldrazi’s Magmaw– a ranged artillery option.
Whenever you have a deck that relies heavily on a swarm of smaller creatures swarming across the battlefield, it’s important to have a good removal suite to back them up. The window of efficiency for smaller-body beaters begins to close quickly if dominance hasn’t been established, so having ways to keep the attack lanes clear is a vital part of that strategy.
Fortunately, even if removal has been toned down over the past few years, you still have a fair slice of it at your disposal. Most of it comes in the form of burn, but there are a couple of options that remove a threat outright, regardless of its toughness.
Complete Disregard exiles a target, and is one of only two pieces of instant-speed removal. The caveat, though, is that it must have a power of 3 or less. This is perfectly fine- early roadblocks that are stalling your creature swarm are unlikely to have a power in excess of this, though as a singleton it’s utility is a bit hampered. Still, exiling rather than destroying matters here, similar to ingest.
Grip of Desolation, on the other hand, simply whisks an opposing creature away to the exile zone, taking a land along with it for good measure. In the preconstructed environment, this latter effect is fairly mundane, and the effect is too expensive for Standard. Once upon a time in Magic you had three-mana land destruction like Stone Rain and Rain of Tears. After awhile Wizards decided that that was too strong, and began inflating the cost of land destruction spells. Often, as a way to make the inflation palatable, they’d add in an additional effect to go with the higher cost (see: Earth Rift, Implode, Poison the Well, Into the Maw of Hell), but at six mana Grip is a poor compromise.
From there we move on to our burn suite, an additional five cards. First up is Touch of the Void, another card we’ve seen versions of before. The concept of Red direct damage exiling things it kills is not a new one. Champions of Kamigawa, for instance, gave us Yamabushi’s Flame, and more contemporary examples abound (Annihilating Fire, Carbonize, Anger of the Gods). Touch is quite similar to Yamabushi’s Flame or Annihilating Fire in terms of converted mana cost and effect, but as a sorcery it is much slower than these predecessors. Part of this can be explained by the environment (slower removal overall, which is something we saw quite a bit of- not coincidentally- in Rise of the Eldrazi). In addition, Touch features devoid, though how much that moves the needle is debateable. Still, 3 damage is 3 damage.
If that’s not enough damage for you (and times are it won’t be), then Processor Assault becomes the preferable option. This deals increased damage (5 points) for less cost (two mana), but with an added hoop to jump through. To cast Assault, you must also “process” a card from an opponent’s exile zone into their graveyard. This is the most important use of the ingest creatures you’ve been attacking with, since you cannot cast Assault without having exiled something (you could still cast Mind Raker without processing, but you wouldn’t get the full effect of the card). It’s worth noting that this damage is restricted to creatures only, so this spell won’t let you finish off a vulnerable opponent all on its own.
Finally, the decks second rare appears here in the form of Serpentine Spike. The offspring of Yamabushi’s Flame and Cone of Flame, this costs a ridiculous amount of mana to pull off, but has a much better chance of swinging the game in your favor over Grip of Desolation since it can sweep away the bulk of an opponent’s resistance. You’ll never be happy to see this in your opening grip, but if your opponent’s defenses begin to pile up later in the game you’ll be delighted to see it.
For a little extra damage, you also have recourse to a pair of Molten Nurseries. This enchantment, while officially colorless, follows in a much-trod tradition in Red of pinging enchantments that trigger off of a certain condition. Avacyn Restored gave us Vigilante Justice, for instance, but you can find examples much further back in Urza’s Destiny with Aether Sting. Indeed, we’ve even seen this strategy in preconstructed decks before, with Innistrad’s Eldritch Onslaught and its Burning Vengeances.
That was a core card in that deck, but the Nurseries are in some ways stronger still. Although they only deal a point of damage, they have a much broader trigger condition. Essentially, thanks to devoid you’ll be adding a bonus point of damage to each and every single spell you cast. That can add up fairly quickly, and since it can target either creatures or players, it will never go to waste. This is a solid card here, though casting it on turn 3 will be a bit painful as it does nothing to immediately impact the game state in the way another creature would.
The final two cards that round out the noncreature spells are Transgress the Mind and Swarm Surge. Transgress is a discard spell that exiles the selected card, which is another way to ensure your opponent has cards in the exile zone. Swarm Surge is a combat trick (albeit it one your opponent will see coming as it’s a sorcery, much like Overrun), giving a hefty power bonus plus first strike to all of your creatures. That’s blowout material, and can rout your opponent in the red zone in a stroke or offer a nice chunk of damage if they let them through.
The deck’s mana base is fairly straightforward as they tend to be at this level, but there are a few tricks and treats here as well. Blighted Fen is an Edict effect, forcing your opponent to sacrifice a creature of their choice. At five mana (plus the Fen), this is terribly overpriced, but it never hurts to have the option to thin out your opponent’s defenses (even if it only will remove their worst creature). But hey, instant speed removal!
Looming Spires is effectively a sorcery-speed combat trick, giving one creature +1/+1 and first strike when it enters the battlefield. Your higher-power creatures- and the brittle Nettle Drone in particular- will enjoy the benefit of the Spires even if you have to wait a turn to use its mana.
Finally, a pair of Evolving Wilds offer a touch of mana fixing, painfully redundant in a deck with so few double-mana requirements. Still, these are inclusions tied directly to the deck’s role as a starter deck for newer players, since a novice is far likelier to be frustrated by the occasional bit of color-based mana screw than an inefficient mana base.
Next up, we’ll take the Eldrazi for a ride, and see if they live up to their unearthly promise!