July 29, 2015

Liliana's Traps, Tryouts, and Trumps

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As we continue our look at the colors of Magic Origins, we have come to one of the tougher ones to evaluate: black. White felt aggressive, blue more controlling and tempo-based, but black isn't as straightforward.

As usual, black offers some of the best removal available in the format. But there are major questions as to how valuable this removal actually is. Since two of the best removal options (Unholy Hunger and Cruel Revival) cost a whopping five mana, it's not always clear just how highly to rate these cards.

Removal serves different roles in different decks. Sometimes it's used to clear away blockers, allowing repeated attacks and eventual victory. Other times it's used to prevent our own death so that we can push the late game to a stage where we have some form of inevitability. Removal spells that basically kill anything but cost five mana are quite good at removing pesky blockers, but they aren't as good at keeping us alive in the early game simply because they cost so much. Sometimes, five mana is too slow.

There are other removal options, like Reave Soul and Weight of the Underworld, which can help stem some early bleeding. But the question remains: What does black actually want to be doing in this format? It has some good controlling cards, some reasonably aggressive cards, and—randomly—a bunch of Elf cards too.

Ultimately, black isn't a color that has a clear goal in this set. You have to adapt the cards you get to the strategy you'd like to employ. This may mean that black is better served as a secondary color rather than your primary one. This allows you to cherry-pick the specific cards that are best for your build.

Reave Soul | Art by David Palumbo

Let's jump into the Traps, Tryouts, and Trumps for black as we build a better picture for what it's trying to do.


Traps

Our first trap is Malakir Cullblade.

Malakir Cullblade has what we like to call a high setup cost. What this means is that it asks quite a bit of you before it actually shows you a return on your investment. In this case, its opening offer is a meager 1/1 for two mana. Any regular reader of this column will recognize this as a Vanilla Test failure.

But it's not too far off, right? If you get that first +1/+1 counter on it, you've got yourself a 2/2 for two mana, which does pass the Vanilla Test, but barely. These days, we expect more from our two-mana 2/2s. So while good old Grizzly Bears does still count for something in Limited, the bar has raised a little, and we'd hope for an upside as well.

The real problem with Malakir Cullblade is that it doesn't help itself grow. Since it's just a 1/1 at first, it can't enter combat and survive, so it's up to your other creatures and spells to take down opposing creatures. The hard part about this is that the Cullblade was a card in your hand that wasn't one of those other spells, so you are effectively down a spell to start.

Adding to this is that the payoff isn't that high. If you work your way up to a 4/4 Cullblade, you aren't really that happy. Maybe if it were a flyer, or had some other ability, but just a vanilla creature with no evasion isn't a great payoff.


Next is Revenant.

Revenant is kind of a big cousin of Malakir Cullblade in that it also has quite a high Setup Cost.

Quiz: How big would Revenant have to be to make you happy to have paid five mana for it, keeping in mind that it has flying?

3/3?

4/4?

The line is somewhere in between for me. A 3/4 creature with flying for five mana seems about right. At 4/4 I'm quite happy, and anything above that I'm thrilled by. How often do we get this with Revenant?

Sadly, not that often. It's actually quite difficult to fill your graveyard with creatures.

There are even scenarios where you outright cannot cast Revenant. If you have no creatures in your graveyard, it's a 0/0 and immediately dies. I supposed it's a start toward your second Revenant?

The biggest issue with Revenant is that you won't always know what it will be when you cast it. Sometimes you are getting beaten down, and really need your five-drop to help stabilize your board. And sometimes your Revenant will be a 2/2 for five, and fail you miserably.

I could imagine a deck where you built around it and made it work, but that won't be your average deck so it's probably best to avoid Revenant unless you're sure you have that deck.


Thornbow Archer is our last Trap.

Thornbow Archer is one of those cards that looks like it might be pretty good. It's a one-drop with reasonable stats and hits pretty hard as well. The problem with it is how quickly it gets outclassed. You'll often feel great playing your turn one Thornbow Archer, only to have your beatdown dreams crushed by your opponent playing any 2/2.

This is a reasonable, average-case scenario for the card, and it doesn't get better from there. Imagine drawing it on turn seven. Oh, and if your opponent happens to control an Elf of any kind it totally shuts off the triggered ability leaving you with a 1/2 for one mana.

Sadly, Thornbow Archer is more likely to be a thorn in your side than your opponent's.


Tryouts

Shadows of the Past may be the biggest question mark I have early on for Magic Origins.

This is one difficult card to evaluate! I threw all of my experience and card evaluation tools at it, and all it did was look at me and kind of shrug.

I have finally had a chance to play with the card, and seen it in action a time or two as well. I still can't figure out if it's good or not. I do know one thing: I love scrying, and I love playing removal. This card lets me do the former and encourages me to play the latter.

The downside is that the card does nothing when you cast it, and that scry 1, while quite strong, often doesn't stack well in multiples. Once you find a card good enough to keep on top of your library, you just leave it there and any remaining scry triggers go to waste. This isn't a deal breaker for the card, but when four creatures die at once, you're hoping for a bigger impact.

The upside is that once you (finally) get four creatures in your graveyard—which is harder than it sounds, by the way—you have this great mana sink that can even win you the game. I view this card as a possible inclusion in a control deck, and primarily view it as a way to finish off the game.

I think it's playable now that I've had a chance to run it, but I'm still figuring out how good it actually is.


Last is Necromantic Summons.

This kind of card is usually fine in Limited. It's rarely amazing, but if you are a removal-heavy deck capable of killing big bombs, this kind of card can go up a lot in value. The key here is that you can get creatures back from either player's graveyard. If you cast your big nasty bomb, but they just kill it, you can get it back. If they cast a bomb and you finally manage to deal with it, you can steal it from their graveyard and have it all to yourself.

The spell mastery part looks a little like a tacked-on, added bonus, but it plays out better than that. One main downside to cards like this is that there either aren't any creatures to get back with it, or aren't any worth getting back. The spell mastery part of this card means that even getting back a lowly 2/2 will net you a reasonable 4/4 assuming you have met the requirement.

Overall I wouldn't take this card highly in a Booster Draft, but I do like it and expect to play it sometimes in my slower black control decks.


Trumps

Time for Trumps. First is Read the Bones.

Read the Bones is a reprint in Magic Origins, originally printed in Theros. So far, I've played this multiple times and it's felt like an all-star in most of those scenarios. Sure, sometimes to the loss of two life is a deal-breaker and you can't cast it, but other times you are top-decking late in the game and find this. Letting you see up to four cards further into your library is a huge deal. Many people see Read the Bones and think of it like a Divination that hurts you. But it's a much better card than Divination on the average, as it essentially reads: "Draw two spells" rather than "Draw two cards".

While it's not quite that simple, it's close enough to the truth and when you really need to find some action, a bomb, or a key removal spell, Read the Bones is your friend.


Next is Eyeblight Massacre.

Eyeblight Massacre isn't always good, but when it's good, it's very good. I've seen two types of decks use the card well.

First type is a dedicated tribal Elf deck. Since Eyeblight Massacre doesn't affect Elves (yours or theirs), you can take advantage by putting it into an Elf deck. Your creatures survive and their early plays die.

The other type of deck is a control deck. This format has the ability to be quite fast, and you have to be prepared with a plan to beat those decks if you want to win with your control deck. One plan is to play a bunch of cheap creatures yourself so you can block. But adding an Eyeblight Massacre to your arsenal has the ability to just win games if timed right. Red-white decks particularly have a hard time getting past a well-timed Massacre, but it also wipes away all of the Thopters that your opponent may have made (and usually the creature that made them too).

This card isn't just an automatically great card, but in the right deck (and against the right deck) it really is a massacre.


Last trump is Unholy Hunger.

I won't spend a lot of time on this one, but a card that is instant speed and has "destroy target creature" in the text box is always going to hold an important place in any Limited format. As we talked about earlier, I don't know exactly where that place is yet, and it may well be lower than one would assume.

Either way, I know it will see play, and I put it here as a reminder to not overlook solid removal spells, even if the format proves a little faster or wider than originally anticipated.


Liliana, Heretical Healer

As I've been doing, we'll take a glance at the headliner Planeswalker for this color before signing off for the week.

There's a lot of text for Liliana, Heretical Healer. Much of it translating the story of when she gave her sick brother too much medicine and it killed him, changing her life forever. Or something.

But for us, the main point is that she's a 2/3 with lifelink for 1BB. Not half bad. As stated, she would be something like a solid playable. But, whenever another of your real creatures dies, she transforms and you get a 2/2 zombie for your troubles. This is good. How good depends on Liliana, Defiant Necromancer.

And it turns out the sparky version of Liliana is just ok for Limited. This isn't one of those Planeswalkers that auto-dominates the board, but instead more of a reasonable value card that your opponent can't ignore forever.

The first ability is fine, but nothing great. Discarding cards can hurt you as much or more as it hurts your opponent. The second ability works nicely with the first, and is where the value comes in, as you can buy back non-legendary creatures from your graveyard. This will likely play out such that you get one creature back and then have to protect Liliana with it, but that's ok too. Her ultimate is powerful in most scenarios, but difficult to achieve. You may be better off just bringing back a few creatures from your graveyard instead of going for the ultimate.

Either way, Liliana is a strong card for Limited and will be picked and played early and often.

Until next week!

@Marshall_LR



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