Battle for Zendikar: Call of Blood Review (Part 1 of 2)
Back in Magic 2010, the first of the revamped line of Core Sets, a rare black enchantment was printed that over time would turn quite a few heads.
At five mana, Sanguine Bond was a card that screamed ‘Johnny,’ the Magic player profile that delighted in clever play through combos and card interactions. It did nothing on its own when played, but rather relied on other circumstances for effect.
Lifegain, however, had long been a secondary Magic strategy.Though old-timers could wax nostalgic about the largest Stream of Life they’d ever cast, only in the more recent era did lifegain really begin to see its power creep up. The promise of Sanguine Bond was that- in the right deck- it gave a win condition to a strategy that typically saw them in short supply. And when three years later Exquisite Blood was released in Avacyn Restored, the circle was complete.
Although Sanguine Bond didn’t see print in the following year’s Core Set, a number of cards like Ajani’s Pridemate and Ajani’s Mantra did, keeping a lifegain-based strategy relevant, as in the Blades of Victory deck.
Today’s deck, Call of Blood, promises to be the lifegain deck that previous lifegain decks such as Blades of Victory, Magic 2014’s Lightforce, and even Duels of the Planeswalkers (2009)’s Master of Shadows weren’t.
Bring your own Courage
The deck’s opening creatures offer little hint to the rest of the deck. A pair of Kitesail Scouts are a flavorful update of the Suntail Hawk (itself an update of the Lantern Kami), but don’t add anything substantive to the deck. The puny Suntail Hawks worked well in Bant Exalted because that deck’s ability, exalted, could make a goliath out of a small evasive creature. Here, in a deck without even a single aura to occasional boost them up, they’re simple filler.
It’s as early as the two-drops, however, that you start to see the central theme of the deck emerge. The Zulaport Cutthroat is cut from similar cloth as the Suture Priest, a triggered effect stuck on a 1/1 stick. Each time you lose a creature, you get to siphon 1 life from your opponent.
Next up is a trio of Stone Haven Medics. Your classic lifegain tapper, these benefit the deck in two ways. First, their 3-toughness is strong for the early game, and they make a decent defensive wall if facing an aggressive deck. Second, they offer a dose of lifegain each turn, which synergizes well with some of the deck’s other effects. That the deck offers three of them should serve as some indication of the value they play here.
Finally, there’s the Serene Steward, which carries an ability somewhat reminiscent of the Orzhov’s extort from Gatecrash. Whenever you gain life, you have the opportunity to purchase a +1/+1 counter for one of your creatures. In a sense, the Stewards keep the deck grounded in the basics- for all the fancy interactions, making huge creatures to bash your opponent with is a surefire way to move the game towards its inevitable conclusion.
As shown above in the mana curve, the deck’s creatures explode at the three-drop level, and most of these play right into the deck’s primary themes. The Malakir Familiar is an aerial menace with deathtouch that gets temporarily bigger every time you gain life. This is the creature that the Kitesail Scout wanted to be- a growable, evasive threat- and the deck gives you a pair of them. Given the many ways this deck has to offer you lifegain, you’ll have little difficulty making the most out of this Bat.
The Nirkana Assassin uses the same concept- an added effect whenever you gain life- but to lesser effect. Since deathtouch doesn’t stack (one occurrence of deathtouch does everything that ten occurrences of it do), there’s no reward for orchestrating a turn full of lifegain. Or put more optimistically, it’s a card easier to optimise- and you have a trio of them as well.
Next up is the very strong Drana’s Emissary. This aerial 2/2 comes equipped with a steady lifedrain effect- though it’s interesting to note that it’s not a ‘true’ life drain since you get only 1 life, regardless of how many opponents you are playing. In addition to being a relevant, evasive body, the Emissary offers you a path to victory in the event you have to turle. There’s certainly the possibility of that with the cards in this deck- some defensive-minded options like the Medic and Assassin to stall the ground game, lifegain to prolong your existence and help absorb hits, and a steady drip-drip-drip of your opponent’s life total ebbing away through an Emissary (or maybe two)… if you like playing defensively, that option is certainly here.
The singleton Hagra Sharpshooter offers repeatable removal. Once upon a time the five-mana activation would have seemed like an expensive mana-sink that was something of a flavorful touch, but given the decline in the quality of removal in the past few years, five mana feels right at home.
Finally, there’s another bit of filler in the Shadow Glider, a body twice as robust as the Kitesail Scout that comes at three times the cost. There’s a lesson in there about color and costing somewhere for those comparing the two side-by-side.
A pair of Bloodbond Vampires bring us to the four-drop options, and this creature is a more robust version of the Malakir Familiar. Not only is it a more substantial body in a 3/3, but the gain in strength every time you gain life is in the form of permanent counters. While it does lack the Bat’s evasion, it’s a solid card to want to build up and it won’t take many counters until it becomes a must-answer threat.
You also have a pair of Courier Griffins, workable flying bodies with another dollop of lifegain attached to them. That 3 toughness in the air is nice, giving you the option of two-way play.
Another analogue ushers us into the top of the curve. The Kalastria Nightwatch is not unlike the Nirkana Assassin in that they offer a binary bonus- you either have it or you don’t. While the Assassin gained deathtouch, the hefty 4/5 Nightwatch takes to the air.
The final two creatures here are both the deck’s rares, and each offer a different lifegain-dependent win condition. The Felidar Sovereign– a reprint from the original Zendikar that dropped down a level of rarity- is an alternate win condition. Get yourself up to 40 life, and you win on the next upkeep! That turtling strategy mentioned above can certainly help you attain this goal if the tide of the game takes you in that direction. The fact that the Sovereign itself has lifelink only pushes further in that direction.
The other option here is the foil premium rare, Defiant Bloodlord, which is Sanguine Bond on a stick. A 4/5 flying stick. In addition to being difficult to deal with, the life loss the Bloodlord can promise your opponent will make this a must-answer threat. And if somehow the air lanes are too dangerous to risk the Bloodlord in combat, turtling works just fine here as well.
Favors the Blades
As a relatively creature-heavy deck, Call of Blood skimps just a touch on the noncreature support, but it’s there. Tandem Tactics gives you a handy combat trick, and the dollop of lifegain that comes along with it opens up just as many ambush possibilities. You might have to chump an opponent’s lumbering beatstick with your Nirkana Assassin, but with Tandem Tactics you can ensure it’s at least a trade.
Five pieces of removal isn’t bad, either. Gideon’s Reproach is White damage, with the usual restrictions for that color. 4 damage, meanwhile, should sort out a fair number or midgame threats you’ll be facing. In addition to a pair of these, there are two Demon’s Grasps as well. These aren’t cheap, and often a 5-mana sorcery may be all you’ll be able to accomplish on your turn, but again it’s an answer to a large number of threats.
Finally, Roil’s Retribution is a nasty card that can turn a combat into a slaughter. Against a player running a swarm of cheap creatures, it can at least be a two-for-one, and sometimes more if you line up your blockers correctly using it to deliver some coups-de-gras.
Rounding out the spells is a pair of Dutiful Returns. I’m seldom fond of cards like this, since they don’t really do much on their own. Most of the time, I’ll probably prefer to draw and play a Bloodbond Vampire or Courier Griffin, but slow as it is it does offer some card advantage. So there’s that, I suppose.
As for lands, the deck suffers from the same overabundance of it introduced a few years ago, likely because Wizards arrived at the conclusion that mana screw rather than mana flood was the thing more likely to frustrate newer players.
While that’s not entirely unfair, it still does leave the decks running a bit too rich, but three of the lands in Call of Blood offer sacrifice effects. Two of these are Evolving Wilds, and each of the set’s decks carries multiples of them. The other is a singleton Blighted Steppe, an uncommon spell-land that tacks on just a touch more- you guessed it- lifegain onto the field.
Call of Blood looks surprisingly focused for an Intro Pack, and we look forward to taking it out for a test drive! We’ll put it through its paces and report back.