Duel Decks- Zendikar vs Eldrazi: Eldrazi Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
Is she or isn’t she?
At time of writing, one of the biggest areas of speculative debate centers around what the unspeakable horror at the heart of Innistrad’s woes could be. The previews of Shadows of Innistrad are upon us, and one of the theories with the most traction is that it’s Emrakul, the third Eldrazi titan and the one whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
On the one hand, it makes perfect sense, since the ELdrazi were conceived as Magic’s version of Lovecraftian horror, unspeakable and inscrutable things out of space and time. It would make an interesting connection between two standalone blocks as we transition into the two-set block system, as well.
On the other, there are many who feel like it would be too much or too soon. Regardless, especially when viewed through the flavor-overload design of Innistrad, the Eldrazi have captured the imaginations of Magic players.
While we’ve had a number of new Eldrazi decks to look at as we’ve made our way through Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch, the Duel Deck released in the run-up to Battle for Zendikar has a much more old-Eldrazi feel. This is mainly down to card selection, which draws heavily from Rise of the Eldrazi. Similarly, it employs Eldrazi Spawn, the 0/1 original token/mana banks, rather than the updated 1/1 Scions.
But it’s not fully on-theme, given that the Duel Decks product line seeks to deliver a gaming experience, not just a thematic one, and where it’s made sense to add Goblins, Insects, and Vampires, Wizards has happily done so Today we take a look at the Eldrazi deck, and see what an ancient and terrible enemy has mustered.
Pleas for Death
We open the deck with a pair of Runed Servitors, humble 2/2 two-drops that replace themselves in your hand when they die. Of course, they also give your opponent a card as well, which is something of a push. As simple, colorless Bears it’s not a very exciting card, and there will be plenty more you’d rather draw at most any point of the game. It’s main value is that- provided you haven’t missed a land drop- you’ll usually be able to play it on your second turn, whereas your other options require you to be in the right color.
For a card like Bloodthrone Vampire, having access to Black on turn 2 isn’t too difficult, and it makes a fine play later-game because of it’s sacrifice ability. It’s resource-heavy, but if you’ve managed to field a horde of creatures (including Eldrazi token creatures), it can be a must-block threat. The risk with sacrifice outlet creatures is that you go through all the trouble of pumping them only to see them die to removal, but the removal in this Duel Decks environment is very meager.
Finally, if your second-turn mana is just right, you can even deploy your first Eldrazi in the Forerunner of Slaughter. Much like the Vampire, this is just as fine to play at most any point in the game, particularly when you have the extra mana to do so. Giving one of your Eldrazi titans haste can make for a very nasty surprise.
Moving up to the three-drops, again you only have single Eldrazi here, the Dominator Drone. Although you can’t reliably be on-curve with only four two-drops, there are still plenty of colorless creatures in the deck for you to get maximum value out of the card when played later. 3 power is solid here, but the ingest ability is fairly useless. Unlike the Eldrazi-based Intro Packs in Battle for Zendikar/Oath of the Gatewatch, the Duel Deck version doesn’t go into the ingest/process mechanical space. It’s not an entire dead end, though, as any cards exiled with the Drone can still feed the Oblivion Sower.
That sort of sometimes-synergy is a foundation of the modern Duel Deck experience, as we’ve often pointed out. Not every card will synergize with every other; often, you’ll need to get the exact two or three cards in play to take full advantage. This is by design, and combined with the near-singleton nature of the deck list it helps offer a wide variety of game experiences and, thus, ensure replayability.
Consider our next three-drop, the powerful Vampire Nighthawk. Games with an early Nighthawk will often be considerably different than games without, given its ability to swing games through difficult-to-block lifelink damage and a solid 3 toughness. Even later in the game, it can be a formidable defensive option as opponents might hesitate trading their larger attackers for a three-drop defender, thanks to deathtouch. This is the kind of card you’ll always be delighted to see in your opening grip, and it’s a terrific inclusion.
Next up is the Pawn of Ulamog, your first Eldrazi Spawn token generator. The Pawn’s Spawn only generate as a death trigger, but it makes for a nice consolation prize when your creatures shuffle off the mortal coil. It also allows for some of those “occasional synergy” interactions that turbocharge the deck, such as when you have the Magmaw in play. Sac a critter to Magmaw to ping your opponent, then sac the Spawn to do it again- as many times as you have mana. You’d never do this until you had the game in hand, but it’s a nice closing option for when the board state has stalled out in the red zone.
Another stall-breaking option appears in the Bloodrite Invoker. Part of a cycle of Invokers from Rise of the Eldrazi, these were designed for precisely the purpose of acting like a safety valve for games that weren’t progressing. Dump in eight mana, and you’d get some large repeatable effect that could help move the game towards its conclusion. In this case, it’s a 3-point life drain.
The last two creatures here are the Torch Slinger and Cadaver Imp. The Slinger is a modest body with a potential Shock attached through kicker. The Imp, meanwhile, is graveyard recursion, an option in case something important died that you’d like to get back. Neither are exceptional, but both are occasionally-useful niche players.
Another pair of kicker cards occupy the four-drop slot in a pair of Heartstabber Mosquitos. You’ll almost never want to play this just as a creature, given the paucity of removal you have access to. While it’s maddeningly expensive (seven mana for the whole package) and at sorcery speed, it’s almost always going to be worth it to thin out your opponent’s creature base.
Ordinarily we tend to lump 5+ costed creatures in our “top of curve” analysis, but decks like this, which have so many options there, need a little more dissection. While we mainly have the beatsticks you’d expect with any Eldrazi deck here, there are some enabling options as well. A trio of Emrakul’s Hatchers are central to the deck’s strategy, as apparent by the quantity on offer. Each of these five-mana 3/3’s can ramp you into a next-turn eight-drop like Ulamog’s Crusher, or propel you to even more expensive options. The 3/3 body is reasonably relevant, though not much of a closer- that just isn’t their job.
You have a couple of “setup pieces” in the aforementioned Magmaw, as well as the Butcher of Malakir. Both of these are here to synergize with the fundamental core of the deck, particularly the Eldrazi Spawn tokens. Magmaw is a sacrifice outlet, letting you turn your board into a source of dump damage to finish off a wounded opponent. The Butcher, meanwhile, goes after your opponent’s creatures. This Grave Pact effect is always applicable, but it’s even more potent when you’re playing with Eldrazi Spawn that you can sacrifice to convert into mana.
It’s worth a quick aside to note that the “occasional interactions” we’ve discussed in the Duel Deck environment aren’t just balanced within their own decks, but actually are balanced across them as well. Decks will often contain “silver bullets” that are designed to be difficult for your opponents to handle- a classic example being the Silver Knight from Duel Decks: Knights vs Dragons– but they’ll often also have “silver shields” that let them sidestep the thrusts of their opponent. For the Zendikar deck, one of these is the deck’s foil premium rare, Avenger of Zendikar, whose Plant tokens make excellent sacrifice fodder.
That leaves a playset of the Eldrazi titans to close things out, any of which can turn the game on its axis. The cheapest of these is the Oblivion Sower, the deck’s premium rare card. The Sower is a 5/8 with an enters-the-battlefield ability that can help build your manabase. Exiling the top four cards of your opponent’s library should usually get you at least one land, and if we remember that in the late-game we’re playing a land on average every third turn, that can go a long way towards helping the deck advance its agenda.
Next up, costing two more mana at eight, is Ulamog’s Crusher. A full 8/8 with annihilator 2, it attacks each turn if able. This was a deliberate design choice when the card was being made, as related by head designer Mark Rosewater in an interesting narrative:
It features in my favorite developer story of the set. One of the things we do during development is to bring Magic players from elsewhere in Wizards to playtest our sets. It’s important to get a sense how people react to the set when they play it for the first time, so we like to hold playtests with fresh eyes and a more casual sensibility. During the first such playtest, we noticed that when players got an Eldrazi out, they wouldn’t attack with it. R&D had quickly realized the power of the annihilator mechanic, but the less experienced players didn’t seem to feel safe throwing their giant creatures into the fray.
We took notes and talked about it, but changed nothing. The next playtest the same thing happened, and the playtest after that. During one development meetings we had a discussion about what we could do to make less experienced players realize that you should be attacking with the Eldrazi.
And voila! Not only do you have a massive titan that attacks each turn if able, but an interesting insight into how these creatures were designed and received.
Moving to a nine-drop, we find the Artisan of Kozilek. Even larger than the Crusher, it also has annihilator 2. But it’s not just a stat boost you get for the extra mana, but the Artisan also can resurrect a creature from the graveyard and put it right onto the battlefield. Although this becomes stronger in a deck where you have discard outlets to seed your graveyard, Eldrazi has no such options available. Typically, then, you’ll be returning things you already cast, and that typically means something smaller.
The final, top-of-curve behemoth is the 11/11 It that Betrays. A true closer in every sense, not only does it force sacrifice through annihilator,but it also lets you take control of almost anything your opponent might sacrifice- the only provision is “nontoken.” This is in essence a “drain” ability not unlike the Invoker’s, but on a much grander scale. If you manage to find the mana to play it, there’s a very good chance that the game is yours.
Since this is ostensibly the slower deck of the two in this Duel Deck environment, it benefits for a somewhat more robust removal suite. This is designed to let it buy some time while it races to bring a battlecruiser on-line, though as we’ve seen already the Zendikar deck is perhaps a step too slow on the pace to put up a consistent challenge.
Nevertheless, the removal is certainly welcome.
Forked Bolt is the least of these, a slow-motion Shock that lets you divide the damage. It’s also your only burn in the deck, as the rest of the removal comes from the Black slice of the color pie.
First up is a dose of pinpoint removal. Smother is a cheap and easy way to kill an opposing beater, with the caveat that it be one of your opponent’s smaller creatures. Induce Despair can kill anything, provided you have a large enough creature in your hand that you’re able to reveal. One problem with decks heavily weighted towards expensive cards is that it can reduce your earlier options. A card like this gives you some benefit to having an uncastable titan in your hand. Finally, Corpsehatch will kill anything your opponent can field. Although it costs five mana, it does have the benefit of delivering a pair of Eldrazi Spawn.
The last bit of removal comes in the form of a pair of sweepers, though both of these tend to be limited to the lower-hanging fruit. Marsh Casualties will give -1/-1 to all your opponent’s creatures (-2/-2 if it’s kicked), while Consume the Meek hits the lowliest of creatures across the entire table. Since token creatures have a CMC of 0, you’ll want to be sure you’re not playing this on a table filled with Spawn unless you have no other choice.
The rest of the deck is a mixed bag. Mind Stone offers some additional mana ramping, while Read the Bones gives you both a sacrifice outlet as well as card filtering/card draw. Lastly, Hellion Eruption is a solid way to close out the game by brute force if you’re sitting atop a pile of Eldrazi Spawn. Although the Hellion’s don’t have haste, giving your opponent a turn to brace for impact, they can substantially add to the power of your army in a stroke.
For nonbasic lands, there are a few options here to help move things along. Akoum Refuge’s give you some mana fixing, and the drawback to these cards- that they’re slow- isn’t much of a problem in a deck that’s already on the slower side You get three of those, as well as a pair of Rocky Tar Pits. These also offer slow mana fixing, and while they’re not as versatile as the Refuges, they also thin out your deck of land which marginally improves card draw quality in successive turns.
Finally, an Eldrazi Temple delivers a touch of acceleration for your endgame, making Eldrazi and their abilities cheaper to play.
And that’s the Eldrazi! We’ve assessed the threat they’re up against, we’ll be back with a playtest to see how they hold up.