2009’s Conflux had a difficult act to follow. The large set of the block- Shards of Alara- had repeated Ravnica’s trick of tying storyline and theme together with distinct colour combinations, though this time they were in three-colour “shards” rather than two-colour “guilds.”
Welcome once again to another edition of Whispers of the Muse, our occasional deckbuilding advice column! Unlike many advice columns, this one isn’t just a two-way conversation between reader and author, but rather gives all of our Ertai’s Lament readers the opportunity to offer their sage wisdom and experienced counsel on how to improve a deck.
It’s our final visit to the plane of Alara for the while (until we return in the future with Conflux), and it’s been a richly rewarding one. Although this is a set Sam much prefers over me, we’ve both found reasons to enjoy and appreciate the set. Sam’s delighted in the setting and memorable characters like Ajani and Elspeth, while I’ve found a word here to describe my personal colour-preference: Grixis.
And so it’s with some irony that for our final match we’ll have completely switched places, for I’ll be piloting Naya Behemoths while Sam sets up behind Grixis Undead. Being candid, I’ve probably looked forward to playing this deck the least as a matter of personal enjoyment- heavy creature decks don’t typically thrill me the way others do, but we’re both ready to see how they measure up. Can the heavy killpower of Grixis keep my behemoths at bay, or will Sam find herself reduced to a foul-smelling substance beneath the foot of one of my mighty gargantua- here are our notes.
It’s our last stop on our tour of the plane of Alara, and this one’s going to be big. No- huge. Wait… gargantuan! That’s right, today we’re visiting Naya, the shard where going big isn’t just a philosophy, it’s a necessity. Like Esper, the mechanical distinctiveness of this shard isn’t keyworded. There’s no equivalent of unearth or exalted or devour here. Rather, Naya takes a “size matters” approach, giving you a raft of massive fatties as well as cards that care about power. Indeed, with over half your creatures weighing in with a power of 5 or greater, Naya specialises in doing one thing, and that’s smashing your opponent’s head in. As we’ll see, the bulk of the deck is engineered to either do that itself, or to help you do that.
We’ll begin, fittingly enough, with the creatures.
With Jund available as an opponent deck, my nemesis this time could be no other than Sam. In addition to loving the shard of Jund, Sam also happens to have a devour deck of her own that she delights in playing. For my part, I’d be leading the more thoughtful and pensive shard of Esper into battle, though certainly not a shard without its own formidable resources. In our analysis of Esper Artifice, we found it a solidly-built skies deck with some unique artifact twists. Now we’d see just how well that strategy paid off. Our notes from the three matches are as follows…
Thus far in our tour of the various shards of Alara, we’ve found three new keywords: Bant’s exalted, Grixis’ unearth, and Jund’s devour. The designers of the set wanted to give each shard its own identity through a mechanic, but for the last two shards on our list no keyword was needed. Instead, they have a more thematic approach, and for Esper that meant a new innovation- coloured artifacts. Sure there had been a smattering of these before, but Esper was designed to be dedicated to them fully- every Esper-themed creature is an artifact.
Esper in some ways is something of a mini-Mirrodin, a land where artifacts and artifice holds sway. Visually and conceptually distinction from Mirrodin, however, was achieved through the concept of etherium, a metal infused with Magic that could be not just grafted onto, but actually replace body parts and appendages. The most notable example of this is the iconic right arm of Tezzeret, but it extends to all living things on the shard.
This gives the shard’s denizens a cohesive look and feel, and Esper Artifice takes full advantage. Many of the deck’s cards care about artifacts in some way- either through direct interaction or passive bonus. Nowhere is this more prevalent than with the deck’s creatures, and so there we’ll begin.
Although in the lore the shards of Bant and Esper weren’t directly inimical to one another, they might as well have been tonight as Jimi and I sat down to do battle with both. Jimi selected the synergistic and artifact-heavy Esper Artifice, and we lined them up for the customary three games. Would exalted have what it takes to take down the etherium-addicts? Here are our notes from the match.
Most of you are familiar with the concept of a ‘cycle’ in Magic: the Gathering, but for those newer to the game who may not have come across this concept yet, it is as follows. A cycle describes a group of cards that are linked together either thematically or mechanically. A good example from the latest block might be the Smith cycle (Myrsmith, Painsmith, Riddlesmith, Embersmith, and Lifesmith), with each card doing something very similar yet representative of the colour each card draws from.
In that vein, the five intro decks from the Shards of Alara set could be said to be a “cycle” as well. This is not just thematic, which is the obvious part- each of the five decks represents a shard of the plane of Alara, a part of the plane that has splintered off from the others and carries a very different topography and culture. It’s the actual compostion of each deck’s mana base that also gives it a mechanical connection. Within each deck is seventeen land, and each of the five has it divided identically. The primary colour gets seven of its respective basic land. Bant, identified with the colour White, has seven Plains. Then each of the two allied colours gets three basics each. As the allied colours of White are Blue and Green, there are three Islands and three Forests in the deck.
If Sam immediately identifies with Naya, with its emphasis on Green and love of huge creatures, Jimi is likewise a devotee of Bant. The White-natured setting, the bounty of Soldiers, Knights, and other typically weenie creatures, the early aggression, all these are consistent with Jimi’s preferred mode of play. It took no prodding whatsoever to get her to rally the forces of the adoptive home of Elspeth Tirel in defense against the shambling hordes of Grixis. Here are the notes from the clash.
Our next stop in our tour of the shards of Alara is the world of Grixis, a bleak and dystopian world where the dead both outnumber and hunt the living. Vast bonescapes cover the terrain, fields littered with the remnants of those too far deteriorated or scattered to be reanimated or repurposed. Small pockets of humans and other races band together in pockets, hiding from the horrors about them. If it helps, think of the humans in the Terminator series in the future where machines hold sway. In a word? Grim.
In more concrete terms, Grixis describes the shard ruled by the colour Black, alongside its two allied-colours Red and Blue. In keeping with the set’s theme, Grixis has its own unique mechanic in unearth. A creature with unearth has a limited second live, a recursive “two-and-out” that lets you recast them from the graveyard once they’ve ended their initial lifespan on the battlefield. This second go-round is, to repurpose a phrase, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Put another way, once you trigger their unearth, they rocket from the crypt with haste and are removed from the game if they die again or at the end of turn. With this in mind, we now turn our attention to the inhabitants of Grixis.