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July 30, 2016

Eldritch Moon: Unlikely Alliances Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

Released in 1997, Weatherlight was the third set of Mirage block, but had only the loosest of ties to the first two sets (Mirage and Visions). Rather, the graveyard-focused Weatherlight was a prelude of sorts for a multi-block-spanning story called- surprisingly enough- the Weatherlight Saga. 

The story kicked off in earnest with the following set, Tempest, and told the story of a dashing crew of protagonists in a flying ship looking for their captain, Sisay, who had been captured by the villainous Volrath. What made the story unique for its era wasn’t just that there was a strong and cohesive narrative behind the releases, but that the story played itself out on the cards themselves like panels in a comic book. (See here for a great card-by-card narrative list from Weatherlight to Exodus).

In hindsight, Wizards adjudged that as a failed experiment. The story itself has only grown in terms of fond remembrance from those players who experienced it, but the idea of the comic-strip style narration was not universally loved. Wizards has long since wrestled with the best way to blend the story of a set and the art of the cards.

In the original Zendikar block, the conclusion of Rise of the Eldrazi wasn’t expressly laid out, and raised seemed to raise more questions than answers. Although it’s unlikely we’ll ever see the old-fashioned storyboard model, in the last few sets Wizards has begun to more closely integrate the plot of the story into the cards. Just in the current block alone, cards like Anguished Unmaking and Trapped in the Moon reflect pivotal points of the narrative, and even could be characterized as “spoilers.”

Here’s Mark Rosewater, reflecting on the shift in priorities and its reception.

The story team has made a lot of changes in the last few years about how we tell story, so it’s tricky tracking the impact of individual elements.

Here’s what we do know. Story is up. *Way* up. A lot more people are both paying attention to story and are aware of the story…

For many years, we pulled the story out of the cards because we wanted the story to not be spoiled. The end result was that most players simply didn’t know the story.

Since we’ve put it back in, awareness is significantly up and we attribute a good portion of our current success to the fact that the players are now more aware that the story exists.

By its very title alone, Unlikely Alliances reflects some of the plot elements of Eldritch Moon, with the (SPOILER WARNING) different groups, races, and tribes of Innistrad banding together to repel Emrakul, and the force of corruption she brought with her.


Dealt with Elegantly

The deck opens with a single one-drop. Paired with two two-drops, this is clearly not a deck looking to overwhelm opposition through blinding speed. The Sanitarium Skeleton is a surprisingly robust opener, thanks to its 2 toughness. More intriguing, however, is its ability to return to hand from your graveyard, an ability which often suggests some sort of recursion strategy.

Certainly it’s an ability favored by the deck’s two drops, a pair of Unruly Mob . Growing bigger when creatures die, chump-blocking with a Skeleton only to return it to service is a viable- albeit slow and somewhat expensive- way to exploit some synergy between cards. Undoubtedly, there will be more, as we’ll see when we come to the deck’s premium rare.

Far more populous is the deck’s three-drop slot, beginning with the Desperate Sentry. This 1/2 Human Soldier not only replaces itself on the battlefield when it dies (with a 3/2 Eldrazi Horror, no less), but with delirium in play it turns into a much more aggressive 4/2. With three copies in the deck, this is a card that will do some work.

Next up, we have the Skirsdag Supplicant. A 2/3 with an activated ability that generates life loss, the activation cost seems rather steep- until you realize that in a deck wanting to set off delirium, this is actually a bonus! With the Supplicant’s discard outlet, you can put any card type you need into the graveyard much more easily, and it even gives you the ability to achieve delirium at instant speed. That can make cards like the Desperate Sentry become a painful mid-combat surprise (even if they are the only delirium beneficiaries in the deck), and the Supplicant’s effect of inflicting life loss helps move the game towards its conclusion.

Finally, there’s a vanilla Vampire Noble, a singleton 3/2 body designed to just give you a little more red zone presence before ushering us through to the deck’s four-drops.

Leading the pack here is the Nearheath Chaplain, which carries the aggressive 3/1 power/toughness White occasionally gets to employ. Lifelink here is something of a tack-on, because the life expectancy of the card is fairly short- as it often is for heavily lopsided, low-toughness creatures. Often, the Chaplain will be a nice defensive measure, since it can trade out with an opponent’s X/3 creature. Not only that, but the Chaplain almost wants to die, only realizing its full potential once it’s parked in the graveyard and able to split into twin 1/1 Spirits.

This is relevant not just because it replaces itself on the battlefield with some evasive options, but also because it has synergy with the deck’s premium rare, Sanctifier of Souls. This four-drop gets temporarily larger every time a creature enters the battlefield, and is more than happy to see the arrival of a couple of Spirits to the war effort. Not only that, but it can generate Spirits of its own by exiling creatures from your graveyard. This is best used in an aggressive strategy, one where you deploy a lot of cheap creatures to squeeze out as many pump triggers as you can with the Sanctifier before turning it sideways. It would also be paired well with flash creatures, to let them act as a sort of ersatz combat trick. Alas, Unlikely Alliances doesn’t really go in either of these directions, but it still has some utility in a deck happy to field lots of 1/1 Spirit tokens.

Next up is the Gavony Unhallowed, which is a sort of Unruly Mob in Black. The same tactical considerations apply- this is a creature happy to see its fellows perish- but unlike the Mob, the Unhallowed can help bolster your defenses right out of the gate. With 4 toughness, it may prove nettlesome for some opponents to deal with, and that’s before it even starts growing.

A pair of Haunted Dead continue the theme of 1/1 Spirit token generation, each bringing a Spirit along for the ride when it’s summoned. Not only that, but like the Sanitarium Skeleton, these are recursive creatures, able to come back into play from the graveyard (and thus, bringing another Spirit into being). And like the Skirsdag Supplicant, discarding cards can be useful for delirium.

As we approach the top of the curve, we find the Emissary of the Sleepless, a card that was featured in the Ghostly Tide Spirits-themed Shadows over Innistrad Intro Pack. Here, it’s just another opportunity for a Spirit token, and with so many floating about, chances are good you’ll be able to take advantage of the Emissary’s tag-along, even if it’s just replacing a chump-blocker.

Finally, if you’re hoping for a massive beater as a closing option, you do get the Morkrut Necropod. A hard-to-block, seven-mana 7/7, the wealth of Spirit tokens floating around make the Necropod’s combat tax much easier to pay.

A Boon from the Angels

The creation of 1/1 Spirits isn’t limited to the deck’s creatures. Unlikely Alliances pushes you to assemble an aerial army of tokens, so you also have some tools in the support suite to accomplish that.

First up are a pair of Vessels of Ephemera. These enchantments are doubly useful, in that they generate more Spirits, but also drop an enchantment into your graveyard to help with delirium. In addition, you also get two copies of Spectral Reserves, a new Eldritch Moon token generator, which gives you the same Spirit output as the Vessels, but for one overall mana less and with a touch of lifegain tacked on. Of course, you can’t play in installments as you can with the Vessels.

Now that we’ve managed to get a bunch of Spirits aloft, the natural question next is what are we supposed to do with them? Sure, attack and defend are obvious choices, but how does the deck support that?

One answer is Borrowed Grace. This new spell with escalate gives you the prospect of changing all those evasive 1/1’s into 3/1’s, 1/3’s, or- with enough mana- even 3/3’s. If ‘going big’ isn’t an option, you also can get rewarded by ‘going wide’ with a swarm, thanks to Campaign of Vengeance. Even a relatively unprofitable attack can still offer some benefit with the Campaign in play, draining for 1. Indeed, if you manage to get your opponent low enough, you can win just by attacking even before checking damage.

The deck’s removal suite is generous, if a little narrow, helping you get your creatures through for damage. Borrowed Malevolence can either pump or debuff a creature, or both if you pay the escalate cost. Blessed Alliance, meanwhile, offers you a trio of options, one of which is forcing the sacrifice of an attacking creature. This is an ambush waiting to happen, since one of the other modes lets you untap up to two creatures- just the ticket for some surprise blockers.

A pair of Angelic Purges are strong, three-mana removal for creatures, artifacts, or enchantments. Although a sorcery, the versatility is very solid, and with a gaggle of 1/1 Spirits, the lost of one for the greater good will often go unnoticed. Then there’s Ruthless Disposal, which also asks for a blood price of sorts to be paid. The upside here, though, is that it can remove two of your opponent’s best creatures in a stroke, clearing the way for your army to pour through the breach.

Finally, there’s one copy of Bound by Moonsilver, a transferable Pacifism effect that can be moved from target to target once per turn at the expense of a permanent. That’s not a cost you’ll want to frequently pay, but the versatility to ‘scale’ with your opponent’s threats is well worth having.

Beyond that, it’s fairly slim pickings. Lunarch Mantle is an aura that grants a power/toughness boost and flying, the latter coming at the additional expense of a sacrificed permanent. Repel the Abominable is a clunky fit that lets Humans deal damage in combat while Fogging anything else. With a decent chunk of your deck comprised of Humans, you can use this to engineer some unfortunate outcomes for your opponent’s non-Human units.

Lastly, the deck’s second rare is Providence. This card has a “pre-game” effect like the old Leyline cycles, so finding it amongst your opening seven cards gives you the benefit of six additional life. That’s a decent chunk of life, but the feel-good of getting a “bonus” from drawing your opening hand can overshadow the downside: you’ve drawn a seven-mana card that does absolutely nothing in itself to win you the game. Effectively, you’ve just mulliganed yourself, since only six cards in your hand will actually do anything.

To deride the card as worthless is a little disingenuous. This isn’t single-digit lifegain where it might not even buy you another turn, let alone enough turns to turn a losing game around and find a way to win. Even if your opponent is hammering at you for 8 damage a turn, you’ve still at least bought yourself three more draws. Of course, that also means the opponent gets three more draws to try and nail the coffin lid shut.

I’m never excited about these kinds of cards, although the novelty of Providence gives it a few points of fun. It will definitely appeal to the novice player, which is a significant demographic for Intro Packs. But one must be wary, because it’s also a trap. Players who get lucky and mount a comeback off of Providence will often conclude the card saved them, but the better lesson (“what would have changed if that was an Angelic Purge in your opening hand instead?”) risks being overlooked.

All in all, while cut from similar cloth, this seems like an enjoyment upgrade from the Shadows over Innistrad Spirit deck, Ghostly Tide, even if it’s migrated a color and has a somewhat different strategy. We’ll be taking the deck into battle, and returning with a final result. See you then!

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