Friday, January 27, 2012

Dark Ascension M&Ps

Previews weeks.  Two magical (no pun intended) words that indicate the coming of a new set, new mechanics, and new cards to play with, talk about and theorize the best and most hilarious interactions.  Since I’ve been playing, Magic has been a well-oiled machine of card creation with highly constructed and carefully planned sets.  That’s not to say that any of the fun has been taken away; instead, it means that the new sets have all the more to add to whatever metagame in which you find yourself immersed.

Dark Ascension, the 2nd set of the Innistrad Block, comes out next Friday, February 3 and already I can tell it’s a set that gives tools to casual and serious players alike for their deck building projects .  The prerelease, happening tomorrow (and at midnight for some places), is the first chance a layman like myself gets a chance to crack some packs and get my thumbs flipping through some freshly printed cards. 

I’ll have a separate article for you about my experience with the Prerelease on Saturday, but until then, let’s look at the engines of change in Innistrad Block.  The full spoiler is up, so if you’re saving yourself for Prerelease marriage, you might want to come back in a couple days.

I love ordinal lists of stuff, as does my wife, the organization queen of our home.  That being the case, I have carefully reviewed the visual spoiler and taken in as many cards as my brain will hold to memory.  Limited, as my upcoming article regarding my Cube will illustrate, is my favorite way to play Magic.  There’s a variance and excitement of the unknown that has just never gotten old.  Can you get unlucky?  Sure, but Magic is a game with an unavoidable element of luck, so it just makes it all the better.  Besides you also have a chance to get exactly what you need. 

I’m pretty greedy during preview weeks.  Part of me does want to be surprised.  But the tiny urge in my head to peek at the whole preview has become irresistible, and as soon as the full set is spoiled, I can’t help but take it all in, like eating a whole box of donuts when you just wanted to “save the other eleven for later.”

The spoiler at 12:01 AM Monday morning.
Within the spoiler, I wanted to single out cards I was particularly excited about.  Three lists eventually came to mind.  See, about the list thing?  The first one, the one given today, regards what I believe to be the most powerful Limited cards that you might not value as highly as you should when looking through your stack of 84 cards on Prerelease/Release day.  Sure, if you pull a Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, a Bloodline Keeper, or a Havengul Lich, they will tyrannize your deck colors.  What I’d rather talk about are those sleeper cards, the crucial spells you are likely to pull in your pool or draft and are therefore equally as likely to run into on the other side of the table.  These are the meat and potatoes of Dark Ascension, the Top 10 Innistrad Limited, well, M&Ps!

10.    Saving Grasp

This reminds me of when Westley almost falls off that cliff in The Princess Bride.  First thing that came to mind.
Saving Grasp, huh?  Not normally something you consider a real gamebreaker; but I think this card will be essential in control decks (fairly prevalent in the format so far).  To explain the value of this card, we’ll look at a card from a familiar Limited format.

Strictly worse.

This card does the same thing but gives you life!  Right?

Well, two major things differentiate these.  The first one, honestly, is the mana cost.  If you’re keeping three mana open, you either didn’t make a play or are hoping to get when they try to Hideous End your otherwise irrelevant creature.  It puts you a turn behind and you’re down a card, all just to save a creature from a one-sided combat or an errant kill spell.  The life gain is negligible much more often than not, too.

So why is Saving Grasp better?  I see Saving Grasp as a worse, but flashbacking Stave Off.  A flashbacking Stave Off that could do so for a white mana would be pretty awesome for sure, but I think this might be better in this format.  The ETB (enters the battlefield) potential opens up new avenues for this card to be useful in a format with a lot of ETB abilities.  Played your Fiend Hunter and then heartsick as your opponent plays a bomb?  No problem, just bounce your guy back, or better yet, let them use a spell or combat to try and kill it.  Then, replay the Fiend Hunter!  At only one mana on both sides of the spell’s coin, the efficiency and value is exceptional.  Also, it is a pretty great way to shrug off a Claustrophobia, the premier blue removal spell of Innistrad.

Morbid also makes this a choice card.  I know that I’ve played more than one Festerhide Boar and Morkrut Banshee without an active morbid trigger just because I needed more creatures to press my advantage or when I’m backpedaling, and I’m sure you have too, feeling the lost potential as you begrudgingly tap your mana to cast the overcosted vanilla creature.  Now, you can do so safely, knowing that for just one mana more, you can bounce and recast the creature when morbid would be active.  With this same logic, if your opponent offers an obviously unfavorable combat for himself, a Village Ironsmith into your Fortress Crab, say, because he intends to get a morbid trigger off his outclassed creature, you can deny him that!  Block and bounce the Crab (or other, more sensible target)!

Despite the dual mana cost, I think every blue-white sealed deck should have one.  I probably wouldn’t want two or more, but one is in there for sure.

  1. Artful Dodge
The creepiest card in the whole block.  What IS that thing?

This slick little number can be a crusher.  As opposed to other unblockable tricks of the past, the cost and repeatability of Artful Dodge will completely change the dynamic of your opponents following two turns.  It’s great for an aggressive blue/X deck (yeah, I chuckled at "aggressive," too), or even a deck that’s just got a hint of blue, perhaps a green/blue fatty deck.  The reason this is better is because of the way that it messes up combat math for an opponent who otherwise feels secure. 

Picture a board state like this: you are at 10 life, say, and your opponent is on 8.  They’re up on creatures, but they can’t really swing in there or they risk getting blown out by a Village Bell Ringer or some such.  You have a Makeshift Mauler and a flipped Howlpack of Estwald that they have to monitor.  They’re pinging you to death with Spirits, and they have plenty of Zombies to block your big guys. They just played a Ravenous Demon and flipped it.  They pass the turn, satisfied to put you under next turn.  You rip this off the top of your deck and look at a mana-dry opponent.  You’ve just won the game.

This is a great card in a race, to be sure, as your opponent will often play a blocker post combat to slow down your race.  Even if you’re just on one creature, this card can get a Kindercatch in the red zone against an army of little dudes (or big dudes), or your Murder of Crows through some flying pests, and it can be done twice.  Nightbird’s Clutches got nothin’ on dis piece! 

8. Grim Backwoods

Notice those bodies on the right tree?  Love me some Proce.

Yes, this is a rare (the only one in this list), but I think it’s subtle enough to merit inclusion. 

Altar’s Reap is a great card in this format; it activates morbid, wastes an opponent’s removal spell or profitable combat, and it has immediate value for an underwhelming creature or token. 

Grim Backwoods gives you the same advantage at a higher mana price, but it’s just as relevant late game, and it’s repeatable.  I foresee boardstates where a resolved Spider Spawning is holding them at bay, but their big Skirsdag High Cultist demon token is starting to break through.  Why not exchange those low value tokens for card advantage?  Look for your own bomb or an answer to the 5/5 flyer!  Although this is also a morbid enabler, the mana cost is prohibitive for it being a relatively powerful one.  Whose got 10 mana to pop this and cast a Morkrut Banshee?

  1. Hunger of the Howlpack
Whatchu lookin' at?

Hunger of the Howlpack is an unusual card.  It feels like Giant Growth, but I don’t think that’s how you’ll play it.  It feels like a mix between an enchantment and an instant, honestly, unlike its sorcery cousin Travel Preprations.  Although you could pull off some neat combat tricks with, like your first strike guy killing a token, then you pump one of your last-striking trading creatures for the kill, I think this will most often be played EOT after mortal combat on your opponents turn.  In this format, I think it’s definitely better on a flyer (as in most formats), but here especially, with the environment chockfull of dinky little 1/1s.  I think of it as a conditional, cheaper, instant speed Oakenform.  Relevant, but intriguing.  This combos nicely with Prey Upon (either yours or your opponents).

  1. Briarpack Alpha
Briarhorn is just past the tree line.

I sincerely hope that all Wizards is doing for green in Innistrad Limited helps it.  I’m tired of tapping a green-biased pile of six mana for a Kindercatch.  I want some value, pressure, tricks!

Oh, hello, Briarpack Alpha.

Perhaps its moniker is an homage; this card is a LOT like Briarhorn, one of my favorite green Limited cards.  It has a place in my Cube, and although this won’t replace it, it fills the same role.  Flashing in a 3/3 to make a better block is the prime place for it, of course, but it can also help you on the offense.  If you’re going to play a Hill Giant postcombat, why not play it mid-combat and perhaps trade it for a creature?  Good for aggressive green decks and not a bad (but unessential) splash if you’ve got some other solid green cards. 

  1. Burning Oil

He looks like a teddy bear to me.
It seems that a large amount of my cards are instants and/or combat tricks, and I promise that trend will end soon.  More than tricks, though, I like cards that make your opponent think, as it increase the likelihood they'll make a mistake.  Red/White is lacking love in this current draft environment, despite a moderate cardpool and strength of each color by itself.  One of its main problems is a plethora of mana-intensive, unfixable cards like Fiend Hunter, Crossway Vampire, Traitorous Blood, Chapel Geist and so on.  Green has ways to get mana if your other color is white, and black is more supportive and blue is more combo-friendly for red. 

This kind of spell, I feel, helps put a tempo-based Boros deck on the map.  I may be biased, as I love me some Boros.  My first competitive deck was Boros, my Standard deck before last rotation was Boros, my current competitive Modern deck is Boros…it’s just kind of how I roll.  This spell is very flexible, though, and here’s how it might look. 

In an awesome world, you might roll out a Doomed Traveler, a Bloodcrazed Neonate and a Crossway Vampire, and you’re bashing for 3 while your opponent sits on an untapped Forest and a Plains.  You get in there, and out comes the Ambush Viper to…ambush you!  That Burning Oil not only removes their pesky blocker, but it provides something else. 

With flashback, it provides the KNOWLEDGE that you can do it again.  Your opponent can’t outright block to kill your creatures.  Every creature you have gains more value in offensive or defensive combat.  They’re disinclined to attack because you can kill their thing and swing in for the win.

That being said, it is not Geistflame or Brimstone Volley, but I think it’s more useful in more red/white decks than a Rally the Peasants, which is highly conditional.  

  1. Wild Hunger
This is the last combat trick, I promise.  That being said, though, nine out of ten limited games are decided in pitched battle, so I guess I shouldn’t feel so bad.

This is the card that werewolf decks need to get through.  In a world of tokens chumping your massive werewolves, trample has more value than ever.  When you get that Krallenhorde Wantons flipped, you want to kill them, not bounce off a 1/2 Spider.  Rotting Fensnake, who can easily trade up becomes bad, and you can finally kill that pesky Fortress Crab.  It’s a flashbacking Spidery Grasp on the offense!

Also, +6/+2 and trample should either kill them or smash up their creatures to the point of ruin.  Either mid or late game, this card is going to be relevant each time you cast it.  This one I can see playing multiples of, an honor not bestowed on every flashback spell in Limited. 

  1. Wakedancer
Don't go 'round tonight, 'cause it might cost your li-i-i-fe...

I’m pretty excited about this one, and it’s because my aggro roots are showing.  I love tempo swings, and I can see a lot of games this weekend going “Walking Corpse/Ashmouth Hound into your Doomed Traveler/Selfless Cathar/Avacyn’s Pilgrim,” then as they trade, you cast this guy.  It’s a Moan of the Unhallowed for one less!  This shifts the otherwise comparable effect from being good in a control deck to being ideal for an aggro deck.  Getting to MOTU for one less mana (one less back mana, at that), should prove imminently valuable for punishing a slow deck or an unkeepable hand that they optimistically kept.  It also provides that extra blocker in a sticky situation, but it’s all about pressure here.  Either the token or the human could die and you’ll still get value.  The “Human” part of it is another plus in a color with an unfortunate dearth of Humans.  There are a lot of decks that will happily find a home for this.  It’s a black Elder Cathar, a Human white staple, so that’s gotta be worth something.

  1. Dungeon Geists
"Watch out for their kiss, Harry!"
It’s a flying Fiend Hunter!  Fiend Hunter, one of the best white removal spells in Innistrad, gets some muscle and wings in a color that loves to fly.  I think Dungeon Geists is one of those cards that, like Fiend Hunter, any deck that can support it will play it, regardless of their strategy or win condition.  In most ways, I think it’s a better creature. 

Fiend Hunter doesn’t battle well; if you swing on an empty board, it’s just one point of damage and you risk a Rebuke, an Ambush Viper, a Village Bell-Ringer creating a blocker, or any other manner of problem.  On defense, a pump spell or double-flashbacked Geistflame will throw him in the bin and get their creature back with all the benefits and possibilities thereto.  Fiend Hunter is still an excellent creature.  Buuuuut….

I’m going to say that it’s better the majority of the time.  That flies in the face of a lot of commentary, I know, but here's my reasoning.  A solid evasion body that’s below cost for its colors (compare to Battleground Geist or Tower Geist) that also prevents graveyard shenanigans and affects things that help your guys (like Scourge of Geier’s Reach) seems pretty good.  Also, if something DOES happen to your Dungeon Geists mid-combat or anything, the creature is not immediately ready to go.  It’s still got to roll around to their upkeep before it’s any use.  Yes, Fiend Hunter does stop untapping or relevant activated ability creatures like Galvanic Juggernaut and Olivia Voldaren respectively, but for the non-bomb stuff, this will do the trick and provide a solid body in the meantime for any kind of blue deck.  If you are playing blue, you want this card.

  1. Tragic Slip
Really?  Would you REALLY fall into an open grave like that?  Foolish...

Oops!  I slipped and killed your biggest creature.  Clumsy me, I activated morbid and killed your utility creature for a measly black mana.  It feels like a Twinstrike, except always playable. 

This is efficiency on a stick.  Barring truly unusual circumstances, this will kill any targetable creature in the format with morbid up and the existence of this card should always pester at the back of the mind of every player who has morbid up when considering to play their bomb.  It kills ANYTHING!  Blasphemous Act is good because it can do that, but it requires that you give up board development for maximum value.  The list of otherwise difficult to answer creatures gets so much better.  Whenever you hear some troll on the Gatherer forums say “dies to removal,” THIS is the removal they mean. 

Unkicked, it can deal with most things a Geistflame can deal with, and although lacking the flashback utility of Geistflame, but it has a little more value for some creatures, like Manor Skeleton, Predator Ooze, Creepy Doll and Falkenrath Aristocrat.

The kicked version, however, kills most anything that Blasphemous Act or Into the Maw of Hell will kill, with notable exceptions, Manor Gargoyle being the first and most important that comes to mind.

This is the most powerful Common in Dark Ascension, in my opinion.  It will be everywhere, making it nearly impossible to play around if you’re facing down Swamps, and it could not be easier on the mana.  It’s also relevant every single turn of the game.  A player could play 15 creatures and 8 of these and win every single game.  Ever. 

So that’s my list.  I hope that I’m at least close to right, but we won’t know until we slap them all together on Saturday.  I hope you’re going to a Prerelease tournament near you; they’re my favorite tourneys and every match will be different. 

Two more Dark Ascension lists are yet to come, and more about my Cube and decks for all different formats. 

Until then, don’t forget to untap!

- Matt

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