Oath of the Gatewatch: Vicious Cycle Review (Part 1 of 2)
Nearly four years ago, we reviewed a deck called Slaughterhouse from Avacyn Restored. It was a deck that played in a space we’d seen before with preconstructed Magic, although not commonly. Following in the footsteps of Mirrodin’s Sacrificial Bam and Coldsnap’s Beyond the Grave, we summarized this style of deck as follows.
The objective of these decks is simple- take advantage of permanents that don’t mind dying to feed ones that reward you for when they do. Towards that end, many of its cards involve sacrifice and sacrifice outlets, along with the fodder that drives the deck forward.
If we were to summarize the objective of today’s Oath of the Gatewatch deck, Vicious Cycle, we could do no better.
The key to evaluation of this sort of deck is in what lies beneath the hood: the deck’s engine. At it’s most basic, a sacrifice engine could be very small, provided that the effect was worth the cost and risk. Imagine a reasonably-costed Green creature that had trample and gained +10/+10 whenever you sacrificed a creature to it. The natural instinct there would be to play with a flood of cheap creatures- particularly mana dorks that helped hasten your bruiser’s arrival- then turn the beast sideways for the win. If your opponent wasn’t clinging to a Doom Blade, the game would be all but over.
Absurd power level aside, this makes for a fairly weak engine. After all, even if you jam in four copies of your win condition, games can come and go without ever drawing it. Decks that hinge upon the interaction of a few, specific cards in a particular order are “combo engines,” and while those have a long and storied history in Magic, they’re actually the very opposite of what we’d see in a preconstructed deck.
Instead, the strength of an engine in this sort of deck is in its reliability. Put as a question, can you reasonably rely upon getting the effects of the deck in most games you play, even if you don’t necessarily draw the same cards? While Disciple of the Vault was a brutal closing option in Sacrificial Bam, you still had other sacrifice outlets in the Atog and Krark-Clan Grunt. If your deck did what it was meant to do, the overall strategy would prevail, even if its implements varied from game to game, and that’s an important factor to consider when assessing a sacrifice deck.
Simply put: is it worth it to eat your own?
It’s not all about outputs, either. As we saw in Slaughterhouse, you can increase the potency of the engine by filling it with fodder that either rewards you for dying, or at least mitigates some of the pain of loss. It felt good sacrificing a Butcher Ghoul, knowing it would come back even stronger thanks to undying. The Maalfeld Twins replaced itself with token Zombies, while Gang of Devils offered direct damage. With those sorts of death triggers, the poor sods were virtually begging to be fed to the machine.
AS we have before, we’ll be breaking down our walkthrough of the deck in terms of its component pieces rather than just walking up the mana curve, and we’ll begin with the fodder.
End their Suffering
Unlike Slaughterhouse, the pickings here is actually a bit thin. A pair of Blisterpod’s mark the set’s version of the Tukatongue Thallid, a card that replaces itself with a token version of itself when it dies- though unlike the Thallid, the replacement Scion token is actually a little bit better as it can be sacrificed for mana. You get a pair of these.
You also have a pair of Carrier Thralls on hand, which are a slightly bigger, more expensive version in Black. For the extra mana you get an added point of power, but just like the Blisterpod when the Thrall dies, you get a Scion. This takes a great deal of the pain of sacrificing your own creatures away, since the added mana ramping that the Scions offer can come quite in handy when trying to pay for some of your rather pricely closers.
The last card that goes into this category is a very intriguing one, as it has characteristics of both “fodder” and, using the term we did in the Slaughterhouse review, “profiteer.” That’s because the Seed Guardian replaces itself when it dies with a creature token, but that in itself is part of the engine since the size of that token varies depending upon how successful you’ve been at stocking the graveyard. Swapping your four-mana 3/4 for a 1/1 if it’s the first of your creatures to fall doesn’t feel very good, but if the deck’s come together and done what you’ve wanted it to do, larger returns will be the norm. Again here, you have two.
An Echoing Emptiness
In an aesthetically pleasing bit of symmetry, you also get a half-dozen cards purely on the other side of the engine, the “profiteers” that benefit when other things die. On the low end of the scale you’ve got the Rot Shambler, a functional, color-shifted reprint of Unruly Mob from- surprise!- Innistrad.
This is an unusual ability to see in Green, only having appeared once before on Shards of Alara’s Algae Gharial eight years ago. Nevertheless, this is a card you’ll always be happy to drop on the second turn. The 1/1 frame may not seem like much at first, but if the deck goes your way it won’t stay that small for long.
Moving up the mana curve a rung, the three-drop Voracious Null is one of the deck’s two repeatable sacrifice outlets (you have two others that are spells). Although this is a slower outlet than you usually see, being playable only at sorcery-speed, the return is substantially larger than many Vampire-themed cards in the past. Generally the power/toughness boost granted by sacrificing another creature is temporary, but in this hungry fellow they permanently become a part of him in the form of +1/+1 counters.
The Smothering Abomination is your other creature-based sac outlet, and while faster than the Null, this one isn’t entirely optional. Although the reward for offering tribute to the Abomination is substantial- drawing a card- the Abomination refuses to go empty-handed. Each turn, you must sacrifice a creature to it, though 4 power in the air certainly helps offset the cost even further.
Meanwhile, our last two profiteers- the Null Caller and premium rare Dread Defiler– aren’t interested in sacrifice so much as scavenging. Each of these two creatures happily gorges on whatever’s in the pantry, giving you either 2/2 Zombies or life loss for your opponent. The Defiler in particular makes for a fine closer, since it’s a fairly beefy 6/8. It’s worth noting that neither of these abilities require you to tap them, so they can be used as many times in a turn as your mana allows.
More Familiar Predators
Turning one last time to Slaughterhouse, we used the “leftovers” category to place the two creatures that didn’t fit into the engine of the deck (for the curious, Raging Poltergeist and Hunted Ghoul). That showed just how dedicated the deck was to its theme of sacrifice. While there’s no doubting its centrality to Vicious Cycle, this is a generalist’s deck, as the “leftovers” category has nearly as many cards in it as the previous two combined.
We’ll open here with a Stalking Drone, a two-mana 2/2 that has a limited pump ability that takes advantage of the handful of Wastes in the deck. The presence of Wastes is intriguing, as it adds a third “color” to the traditionally two-color Intro Pack decks, but the deck skirts this complication by avoiding any Eldrazi card with “C-mana” in its casting cost. Instead, the Wastes are here strictly for activated abilities of only a few creature cards.
Next up are a pair of Loam Larvae. These are 1/3 creatures that let you tutor up a basic land and put it on top of your library. It’s a useful if unflashy ability, given that it lets you fix your mana if you’re struggling in a color, find a Wastes if they’ve managed to elude you, or help you keep pace with your land drops so you can play some of your more expensive cards. As for the body, it’s somewhat mediocre, but 3 toughness is a nice brake on faster decks early in the game.
Moving up to the three-drops, we find another defensive-minded creature in the Netcaster Spider. Possessing reach as most modern spiders seem to, the Netcaster packs an extra bite when blocking an aerial attacker. Given that flying creatures make up a fair proportion of the other Intro Pack decks in Oath of the Gatewatch, this is a fairly useful metagame call.
You also have access to an Essence Depleter. This is a card that is actively bad here, which makes it noteworthy. A 2/3 with a useful drain ability, the fact that there are only four Wastes in the deck mean that most of the time, this wonderful, repeatable ability won’t get to be used more than once a turn. The card falls far short of its potential through no fault of its own, and might have been a worthier inclusion in Twisted Reality were it not for the fact that it needs Black mana to cast.
The Broodhunter Wurm is a basic beater, 4/3 with nothing more to add, which actually almost seems a touch on the weak side for Green, the most efficient color creature-wise. Still, 4 power is 4 power, and it’s a decent if bland midgame option. The Brood Monitor loses a point of power, but enters play with a trio of Eldrazi Scions. The Eldrazi win again!
Next up is the Baloth Null, which has the useful trick of returning cards from your graveyard to your hand. If you’ve managed to stock the larder with your own creatures for various effects, this is the perfect time to get them back for a repeat performance. Finally, a Kozilek’s Pathfinder represents not only one of your largest bruisers in the deck, but also another use of the Wastes. As with the Essence Depleter, the limited number of Wastes in the deck is going to limit some of the ability’s usefulness, but it can still make blocking difficult for your opponent with just one in play.
Even the Odds
The noncreature support suite for the deck is an interesting mix. You get five pieces of removal, and they’re actually quite solid here. Bone Splinters is a great example of how to ‘break’ a card by turning a drawback into a benefit. Since you can often benefit from losing a creature in this deck, having to sacrifice a creature of your own in order to destroy your opponent’s best creature is a very small price to pay. Of course, that can depend on what you have available. You’ll happily pop a Blisterpod to this all day long, but if the only thing on your side of the board is your Pathfinder, it’s not as painless a choice.
Grasp of Darkness is a reprint from Scars of Mirrodin, and does fine work here despite its heavy black cost. This is another good instance of what removal says about a set. Remember we’re back in the world of ‘Battlecruiser Magic,’ which originated in Rise of the Eldrazi, where you spend considerable resource to bring out massive creatures. In a format where Doom Blade is legal, you’d never see anyone deploy a Battlecruiser- why would they go through the trouble only to see it so casually undone?
So we get more conditional removal, which still allows a player to respond to threats on the board but in a more restrained manner. Grasp’s -4/-4 can kill a great many threats, but all it can do is weaken the larger ones. This is still useful, but the Battlecruiser player can take some comfort in knowing that it often will take two of your cards (Grasp + a blocker) to deal with one of theirs.
While Battle for Zendikar block is not as all-in on Battlecruiser Magic as Rise of the Eldrazi was, it’s interesting to see how that environment persists. Oblivion Strike, your final piece of removal, is proof. This is in many ways stronger than the Rise environment (see: Corpsehatch), being unconditional removal for four mana. The deck gives you two of these, and they’re very strong against larger threats your smaller creatures might not be able to handle.
From there, it’s more of a mixed bag. A pair of Natural Connections allow for mana fixing or ramping, which is a good way to ensure you find at least one Wastes over the course of the game for the handful of creatures that optimize with colorless mana. Altar’s Reap is card draw that, like Bone Splinters, sees its drawback highly mitigated in the Vicious Cycle environment. Vines of the Recluse is a defensive-minded combat trick that kindly doesn’t require you to have an untapped creature, since it conveniently untaps its target. In that sense, it’s quasi-removal (as many combat tricks tend to be), since you’ll usually want to get the most value out of it through an ambush block or keeping a creature alive rather than adding a single point of damage.
The last two cards are ones that play in the graveyard, which is somewhat handy for a deck that delights in filling it. Pulse of Murasa pulls a creature or land back to hand, with a dollop of lifegain to go with it. This can occasionally be useful, but hauling back creatures has a negative synergy with a few of your cards like Seed Guardian or Null Caller. If it could pull back some of your removal cards it would be much more playable, but here it’s an easy cut for deck tuning.
Corpse Churn, on the other hand, is a very interesting little card. It, too, can pull a creature card back from your graveyard, but unlike the Pulse it also helps to fill it. It pairs well with the cards that look to play in the graveyard, and can even be used for a little mischief (stocking up the pantry before a Seed Guardian dies, for instance) though the return isn’t reliable enough to make this more than a novelty.
For nonbasic land, the deck gives you a few options beyond just the de rigeur Evolving Wilds. A Blighted Woodland gives you one more method to go tutoring for basic lands, including the elusive Wastes. Two Fertile Thickets, meanwhile, does much the same when it comes into play. This is very useful deck filtering, helping to get you what you need on the next turn.
Overall, it’s enjoyable seeing more than one ‘engine deck’ in the same set, with Vicious Cycle taking its place alongside the White/Black Desperate Stand. We’ll be taking the deck into the field to see how it stands up, and will return with a final verdict!