Magic Origins: Assemble Victory Review (Part 1 of 2)
Of all the different considerations that go into making a Magic: the Gathering set, one that seems to most often be underestimated is the factor of time. Just because RoboRosewater exists, doesn’t mean that sets get manufactured overnight. Indeed, Wizards of the Coast tends to work on sets up to two years prior to release, so there is a common perception that Wizards has a great deal more flexibility than it does with set creation and design.
This often comes up when we examine the topic of “lessons learned.” When mistakes are made, how quickly can Wizards respond to them? How soon can we expect to see “best practice” integrated into set design? In some cases- often environmental ones- Wizards has demonstrated the ability to respond to a broken gameplay environment fairly quickly. After the disaster of Urza’s Saga block, with loads of broken cards, things were tamped down a bit with Mercadian Masques. Similarly, the low-power Champions of Kamigawa followed the disastrous Mirrodin block, where affinity had warped the competitive landscape.
However, when it comes to some of the other factors that go into game design, they aren’t able to be quite so nimble. You can always tweak a few cards before the file is finalized, but things like card art are comparatively glacial. So are large-scale paradigm shifts like Mark Rosewater’s “New World Order.”
When Magic Origins released in July of 2015, it had a surprising amount of subtle complexity. On the surface, of course, it acted as the backstory of five of the game’s most iconic Planeswalkers. That was an easy theme to relate to, but the pairing of theme and flavor went deeper still. In each of the five planeswalker origin stories, we not only saw how each planeswalker became a planeswalker- how their spark was ignited- but also where they first planeswalked to.
This is significant, because these weren’t “random places” picked for their “interesting stories.” They’re too balanced for that. Because if you take any color pairing in Magic, that pairing is represented by a specific plane in Origins: either an origin plane, or the nascent planeswalker’s first destination. Gideon Jura’s story began in Theros (White/Red), then moved on to Bant (White/Green). Liliana started on Dominaria (White/Black) before ending up in Innistrad (Blue/Black). Chandra arrived in Regatha (Black/Red) from Kaladesh (Blue/Red).
And here’s where we come full circle. Many have noted that Kaladesh seemed particularly “fleshed out” in the set compared to some of the other planes (Vryn, Jace’s home plane, is often singled out for insufficient detail). Of course, we now know that this was because Wizards had chosen Kaladesh well before Origins release as a setting for the Autumn 2016 set.
Explaining the greater depth to Kaladesh in Origins, Rosewater remarked, “Because we knew we were going to go to Kaladesh, we had to do a little more work to make sure our sneak peek lined up with the portrayal in the block.” This represented a “very calculated gamble,” since if the plane fell flat in Origins it would color the player’s expectations of Kaladesh (the expansion set, not the plane).
Until then, however, we are left with smaller looks at the plane, including the Intro Pack deck that is the subject of today’s piece. Time to disassemble Assemble Victory!
Loyal to a Fault
The deck opens with a pair of Bonded Constructs, one-drop 2/1 artifact creatures. Colorless cards are generally easier to cast, so this much power for that slight cost has to come with some sort of drawback. The Construct is no exception, carrying with it the provision that it cannot attack on its own. Cards like this- that dictate the scope of your attack (and sometimes block)- are comparatively rare in Magic’s history, but have an established pedigree going as far back as Tempest (Mogg Flunkies) and Odyssey (Ember Beast). The attack-only stricture is a more modern twist, first appearing on Journey into Nyx’s Sightless Brawler and only again on the Construct, but in both cases it manages to convey a certain dependence on another in order to enter the red zone.
On a more mechanical note, the absence of any one- or two-drops with haste means that the earliest these can swing in is on turn 3, so they do carry a certain elegant balance to their inexpensive cost. In addition, as we’ll see, this is a deck that is hungry for artifacts, so the Constructs will have some ability to help even if they’re not able to go after your opponent directly.
There’s also a single copy of a Bellows Lizard, a reprint from Return to Ravnica. This small creature has essentially a half-strength Firebreathing returning one point of power for every two points of mana spent. This at least gives it some relevance later in the game, when many one-drops have come to the end of their useful life.
The two-drop slot is similarly thin. You get a stock blocking option in the Maritime Guard, which sends a clear signal that this deck plays a longer game. There’s also a variant of Rise of the Eldrazi’s Goblin Tunneler here, the Subterranean Scout. While thematically similar, they have some difference in their mechanical execution. The Tunneler is weaker on the front end, but can use its ability each turn. The Scout, on the other hand, is a single-use, enters-the-battlefield (ETB) effect, but doesn’t require tapping and comes with an extra point of power. Like the Lizard, this utility gives the card late-game relevance, as you can use it to sneak another small attacker through for extra damage.
Finally, there’s a fairly neutral inclusion in the Runed Servitor. A two-mana 2/2 that gives each player a card when it dies, like the Bonded Construct it’s particularly useful in a deck that cares about artifacts. This theme really begins to come to life as we enter the three-drops.
This is readily apparent in the inclusion of Chief of the Foundry. A three-mana 2/3 is just fine, but the Chief also brings along an anthem effect for all of your artifact creatures. 3/2 Bonded Constructs and 3/3 Runed Servitors are fine, but that’s only the beginning. Central to the deck’s theme is the strategy alluded to by the deck’s title, Assemble Victory. A number of creatures from here on out bring along 1/1 Thopter tokens when they enter the battlefield, and the deck looks to capitalize on that fact in a number of different ways. One of them is to turn them into more potent threats, which is the role of the Chief of the Foundry. A buzzing air force of hard-to-block 2/2 Thopters can bring a game to a satisfying conclusion rather quickly, and is one of the deck’s paths to victory.
The three-drop slot itself contains some of these cards. There’s ap air of Ghirapur Gearcrafters and a Thopter Engineer, each of which has a tag-along 1/1 Thopter. The Thopter Engineer is more robust in toughness and has a higher combined power/toughness, but that’s the difference perhaps between common and uncommon.
Finally, there’s a single Ramroller here for a little offensive punch on the ground. Much as the Chiefs pull you towards having artifacts in play, the Ramroller sort of pushes you there. Without an artifact in play, it’s a substandard card, but going in behind 4 power as early as turn 4 is a nice early sortie from the deck.
As we move to the four-drops, we see even more reinforcement of the Thopter-swarm strategy, beginning with a pair of Aspiring Aeronauts. These 1/2’s not only have evasion of their own, but they also bring along a 1/1 Thopter. In addition, there’s a Whirler Rogue here, which gives you the first glimpse at the different ways your Thopters (and other artifacts) can be used to benefit the deck beyond just attacking and defending. With the Rogue on the board, you can tap any two artifacts to make one of your creatures unblockable for a turn. The Rogue comes equipped with- conveniently enough- a pair of Thopters, and since activating this ability doesn’t require anything tapping (as opposed to being tapped), it can be used the turn it touches down.
If that’s not enough versatility, the deck’s premium rare, Pia and Kiran Nalaar lets you convert artifacts into direct damage. It’s not cheap- three mana in addition to the sacrifice of the actual artifact- but it’s very potent. Whether clearing out your opponent’s creatures to let you swarm to victory, or just throwing artifacts at your opponent’s face for the last few points of damage for the win, it’s another strong way to capitalize on a board full of artifacts. It’s also nice to see a premium rare card go to one that synergizes so well with the deck’s strategy, since if often seems to be with Intro Packs that Wizards just foils up some random, fat on-color bomb and slaps it on the front. Full marks here.
As we’ll see when we get to the noncreature support suite, burn and removal are in very short supply there. That means having creature-based sources of damage are needed to pick up the slack, and in addition to the Nalaars, you also get a pair of Reclusive Artificers. These are 2/3 bodies with haste, who carry an extra bang when they enter the battlefield by dealing damage to a creature equal to the number of artifacts you have in play. Although this artificer might conjure up dreams of playing with the artifact lands from Mirrodin, it’s certainly capable of doing a workable job here in Assemble Victory.
There’s also a Separatist Voidmage, which brings along characteristically Blue removal (bounce) rather than burn. Again, with dedicated removal limited, these are card you’ll want to play very deliberately. Finally, a pair of Guardian Automatons round out the four-drop slot. 3/3’s that give you 3 life when they die, they’re fairly straightforward and represent more artifacts to have in play.
There are few creatures in the deck that cost more than four. First up here are a pair of Volcanic Ramblers, who are essentially a Craw Wurm with the ability to convert mana to direct damage to your opponent. Though this isn’t as versatile as the Nalaars, who chould Shock creatures, too, this is automatic damage at the end of your opponent’s every turn. That’s about as efficient as it gets for mana- most of what you don’t use in a turn can still be put to proper purpose.
Finally, the Mage-Ring Responder is one more source of on-board burn. While it’s not cheap to engage with the responder on the attack each turn- you have to pay seven mana to untap it- each time you send it into the red zone it gets to blast a defending creature for 7 damage. That kills all but the biggest threats, and it shouldn’t take many swings to put the game beyond reach.
Good Aim and Steady Hands
Assemble Victory is quite unlike your typical Red/Blue deck, which tends to go heavy on the noncreature spells- often with creatures like Tibor and Lumia or Kiln Fiend that stand to benefit from this approach. Instead, this deck does most of its talking through its creatures, so you have just a few support cards to back up the strategy.
For removal, the deck surprisingly packs virtually no burn. Even with the amount of burn present in creature abilities you’d expect to have a few tricks in hand, but about the only noncreature card helping the war effort with extra damage here is Meteorite. A mana rock with Shock tacked on, you’ll get just as much out of the mana as you will the damage.
That isn’t to say all is lost, however, since you also have recourse to a pair of Ghirapur Aether Grids. Just as the Volcanic Rambler lets you make efficient use of your leftover land before beginning your turn, the Grid will let you tap out your artifacts for additional direct damage. Oftentimes in the past, these sort of Red damage-dealing enchantments have been tied to the mechanics of the set, such as Rumbling Aftershocks and Burning Vengeance. It’s intriguing to see “artifacts” as a mechanical theme for Origins.
Rounding out the deck is a copy of Disperse, a card originally printed in Morningtide. A wider-target Unsummon for a mana more, this gives you just a touch of instant-speed Blue trickery. The pickings get slimmer from there.
A Prism Ring is a life-gaining trinket, the successor to cards like Ivory Cup and Angel’s Feather that give you life whenever the appropriate color spell is cast. Much like Story Circle eventually was the catch-all replacement for Circles of Protection, the Prism Ring is a card that can go into any deck. It’s not a particularly exciting inclusion, but artifacts-matter decks often have a few cheap filler trinkets. Case in point: two Alchemist’s Vials, which are sacrificed to Falter a single creature but at least have the decency to replace themselves in your hand.
Infectious Bloodlust is a new aura that gives its target some respectable bonuses, with the caveat that it must attack each turn if able. And if it dies in the course of attacking (or any other time), you get to go find another copy of the aura and put it into your hand. This is a clever way to offset the natural disadvantage creature auras have in terms of card disadvantage, where you end up losing two cards instead of one when the enchanted creature gets snuffed out. You get an “Intro Pack playset” of three copies here.
Finally, there’s a pair of Artificer’s Epiphanies. This is simple card draw, and you should seldom fail to get the full effect of the card in this artifact-slanted deck.
Overall, despite some clunky card inclusions, this seems like a lot of fun to play, particularly the “how many artifacts can I assemble” mini-game that helps you maximise the deck’s potential. We’ll take it to battle, then return with a final score.
“since if often seems to be with Intro Packs that Wizards just foils up some random, fat on-color bomb and slaps it on the front”
The use of Pia and Kiran Nalaar as the promo rare is the all more surprising for the fact that it’s powerful enough to be Standard and even Modern playable! In contrast to many intro pack foils that are barely playable in draft, let along constructed.
One day I’m going to sit down and try and break Mage-Ring Responder. I’ve opened enough of them.
Definitely needs Voltaic Key 😀
Mage-Ring Responder needs Voltaic Key whenever possible 😀