Duel Decks- Blessed vs Cursed: Cursed Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
As the previews for Shadows over Innistrad begin to be unveiled this weekend, it’s not hard to see that flavor- always a crucial component of Magic sets- once again comes to pride of place. There was something about the original Innistrad, released in 2011, that ignited the imagination of many, and we see cards already making a callback to the ideas and troped of its predecessor. Notice the art of Relentless Dead, picking up where Endless Ranks of the Dead left off. Or the Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration finding its maturity in Aberrant Researcher/Perfected Form.
Small wonder, then, that the battleground of good and evil finds itself so well expressed in the latest Duel Decks release, Blessed vs Cursed. In our last article, we took a look at the goodly folk of Innistrad, girding up for the onslaught of the night.
Today, we look at the onslaught itself.
Without a Soul
The deck opens about as aggressively as its Blessed counterpart, with a splash of one-drops to open its accounts. Like the Champion of the Parish, there’s a rare card here that’s conditionally strong in the Gravecrawler. This Zombie truly lives up to the unstoppability its kind is known for, relentlessly returning to the battlefield time and again thanks to the large number of Zombies the deck commands. Blessed has few ways to deal with it, but is not completely helpless thanks to cards like Thraben Heretic and Fiend Hunter. There’s also the Diregraf Ghoul, a card that’s come some distance from the classic Scathe Zombies of yore.
Moving up to the two-drops, we find a trio of Screeching Skaabs. As Duel Decks are largely singleton affairs, it’s always a tell when a card comes in multiples, particularly a three-drop. This deck really wants you to get cards into the graveyard (surprise!), and sees this otherwise unremarkable 2/1 body as just the way to do that. You also get a pair of Butcher Ghouls, which return as 2/2’s when killed thank to undying. This mechanic, originally introduced in Dark Ascension, is just the ticket for sacrifice decks. While Cursed doesn’t play much in that space, it does contain Barter in Blood and Dread Return, making it an especially satisfying inclusion.
As with Blessed, the three-drops are particularly dense, seeming to indicate a relative parity in speed as a design objective. This is more of a clash of themes than a clash of wildly differentiated dynamics, with both decks heavy with creatures on a relatively comparable scale, with a small dash of support cards.
We open here with the Ghoulraiser, for an expected bit of graveyard recursion. This Zombie returns another Zombie from your graveyard to hand when cast, and with almost every creature in the deck a Zombie you’ll usually get the most value here as well. Of course, since it’s random selection your mileage will widely vary.
Next up are a pair of Stitched Drakes, which rely upon having a larder that isn’t empty to be summoned. If you’ve played somewhat aggressively (or, at least, your opponent has), this shouldn’t be too difficulty a condition to meet, though you can’t always rely on having it early. This is where cards like the Screeching Skaab come in handy, as they can shortcut the process by dumping a creature right into your graveyard without it ever having had to be played. A three-mana 3/4 with flying is an excellent deal, and these will be a useful part of your army when you deploy them. You also get one copy of a different Drake, the Scrapskin one, which is much easier to cast- and with a power level to match.
We also find one of the deck’s all-star cards here in the form of the Diregraf Captain. One of the cycle of Captains introduced in Dark Ascension, this one is an uncommon Zombie “lord,” or a creature that gives +1/+1 to your creatures of a particular type. In addition, your opponent will suffer life loss for killing your Zombies, and while the Captain’s smaller size and valuable static ability mean you’ll want to keep him safe, his deathtouch makes him a formidably blocking option in a pinch. The deck gives you two, but you’d take four if you could.
Our first Shadows Over Innistrad preview card arrives in the form of the Tooth Collector, a card which introduces the new delirium mechanic. We saw this previously on Blessed’s Topplegeist, and it appears the general concept is a creature with a single enters-the-battlefield (ETB) trigger ability that- when the delirium condition is met- becomes repeatable at the start of the opponent’s upkeep. For the Topplegeist, it was tapping, but the Collector is a touch more lethal, giving out a -1/-1 penalty to a single creature.
This is a solid ability, although the structure of the delirium ability isn’t quite as strong as the ETB effect. Yes, they both do the same thing, but it’s all in the timing. You can use the Tooth Collector to finish off a larger creature who’s been wounded in combat, but it becomes much harder to obtain a lethal result when its activated on your opponent’s upkeep unless they have a few X/1 creatures out already. From the aforementioned Topplegeists to the Tandem Lookouts to the central Nephalia Smuggler, there are more than a few of these ripe targets.
Finally, the rare Unbreathing Horde rounds things out. The Horde is a card that you’re actually happier to see later rather than early, since it grows in power with the number of Zombies you have in play or in your graveyard. This can potentially create a Zombie of significant size, and one that will be hard to deal with thanks to its damage prevention effect.
Moving up to the four-drops, we find some other familiar faces and old friends. The Abattoir Ghoul is a solid 3/2 Zombie with first strike, which offers the prospect of some added lifegain whenever it damages something that dies the same turn. Driver of the Dead, meanwhile, has the same stats as the Ghoul, but this Vampire returns a weenie creature to play when it dies for some added value.
Another non-Zombie creature appears in the form of the Falkenrath Noble. The Noble has a particularly useful trigger ability, which is syphoning your opponent for 1 whenever a creature dies. This can set up a nice little trickle of life (and damage to your opponent) if brought out early enough. The flying also gives you some offensive options you’d be harder-pressed to get otherwise from a four-mana 2/2.
Then there’s the Havengul Runebinder, a Human Wizard. This friendly fellow raids the pantry of any dead creatures, converting them into 2/2 Zombie tokens and then giving a nice +1/+1 counter bonus on every Zombie you control- even the token. Though that competes with cards like the Stitched Drake, it’s good to have options. Growing your existing army is one way to break through congestion in the red zone that’s certain to be an occasional issue with two decks of approximate size and speed.
You’ll also want to save a corpse or two for the Makeshift Mauler, another creature that needs some extra body parts for creation. A four-mana 4/5, it’s a sizable beater at a low mana cost, though it suffers from the same drawbacks as the Stitched Drake. The final four-drop here is the deck’s foil premium mythic, Mindwrack Demon. Every bit as big as the Mauler in power and toughness, the Demon has a lot more going on.
For one thing, it’s not only evasive, but it has trample as well. Blessed has a number of flyers, but only one of them is large enough to stand up to the Demon and live (the 5/5 Dearly Departed).Much like the Screeching Skaab, there’s also a beneficial self-mill ability when it enters play, pitching four cards into the graveyard. Of course, this being a Demon there’s also a drawback. If you’re not able to manage its delirium by having four or more card types in your graveyard, you’ll be taking some damage off of it as well.
This is a very strong card, but one you’ll have to carefully manage lest it do too much of your opponent’s work for them. Care will also need to be taken that you don’t slip out of delirium, say, by eating your last corpse with one of your Skaabs or offering it up to the Runebinder. Crucially, your opponent has recourse to a Thraben Heretic, and if that comes out you’ll have to contend with your opponent wreaking some havoc in your pantry.
The deck’s final two creatures top out the mana curve. The Relentless Skaabs have a similar tribute needing to be paid to play them as we’ve seen with a few other cards in the deck. They also have undying, making them rather hard to deal with. It’s one thing when the 1/1 Butcher Ghoul comes back as a 2/2, but the Relentless Skaabs is a 4/4 already. Not bad for five mana in Blue.
Finally, another rare card appears in the Harvester of Souls. This one’s already a 5/5 with a rather redundant deathtouch, but it has a tremendously strong second ability. Whenever another nontoken creature dies- whether it be yours or your opponent’s- you get to draw a card. The Harvester is a game-changer, and when you summon him in the midst of a stagnant board state, you’ll be quite happy to fling your weenies across the red zone in the hopes of trading them in for a new card. Superb!
The Will to Return
For noncreature support, Cursed is as similarly lackluster as Blessed was when it came to removal. You’ll need to expect to do most of your talking in the red zone, because what removal there is here is few and far between- and all of it conditional. Victim of Night is your most open option, since your deck contains none of the monster types exempted from its effect. At two mana and instant speed, this is as good as it gets, so don’t use it without good cause.
The cheaper Human Frailty will hit most of the targets you’re after, but there are enough Angels and Spirits in the ranks of the Blessed to make this feel constrained. You’ll want this card when your opponent lands one of their tricky options that they won’t risk in combat, like a Nephalia Smuggler for flicking ETB creatures over and over.
Tribute to Hunger, on the other hand, can kill anything- even hexproof creatures- but the caveat here is that it’s your opponent’s choice, not yours. Blessed has a number of ways to crank out 1/1 Human tokens, so you’ll be hard placed to consistently pick off a high-value target with Tribute. Barter in Blood, a card originally printed in Mirrodin (but brought back for Avacyn Restored), pops two creatures from your opponent- but it also does the same of you.
Compelling Deterrence, another new card, acts as an Unsummon effect for any permanent except lands, and has an extra kick if you control a Zombie- and really, is there any point in a game with this deck where you won’t be, most of the time?
Finally, there’s Sever the Bloodline, a card that exiles a single creature and all other creatures of the same name. Given the rarity of multiples of particular cards in Duel Decks, this at first seems a poor option, but this is mainly here to keep the Human token population in check. Thanks to flashback, you’ll even get a second use of it, though at seven mana that won’t come cheaply.
Like Blessed, Cursed packs in even more creatures into its noncreature complement in the form of creature-generating spells. Blessed did this with Increasing Devotion and Gather the Townsfolk, helping create small militias worth of Human tokens. Fittingly, there are a pair of Moan of the Unhallowed here, helping you summon even more Zombies to your cause.
Dread Return sees another reprinting in this Duel Decks release. This Time Spiral all-star has had a couple other notable reprintings, in Commander 2014 and Premium Deck Series: Graveborn. Here it pairs well with your undying creatures, softening the blow for the flashback cost.
Rounding out the deck is a splash of hand disruption in the very thematic Appetite for Brains, a little card draw with Forbidden Alchemy, and a Cobbled Wings to give any of your creatures flying– just the thing for getting past the inevitable creature stall these sorts of decks can encounter.
As for nonbasic lands, a playset of Dismal Backwaters is it, and then you’re off to the races!
We’ll take the decks into battle, and return soon with final analysis and scores. See you then!