I have to say that Star City’s three-week hiccup came at a pretty excellent time for me. Work is on overload for virtually all of late April and May (deadline for legislative session is May 21) and so I have had NO extra time to write, at all. I squeaked out a piece or two for the Sideboard during this time, but that’s about it.
The irony is, the article ideas didn’t exactly pile up while I was on "vacation." My mind was elsewhere, my Magic game (when I had time for it) was spent on revving up skills for team Limited formats, and no new expansions have come out that I can theoretically toy with.
Except, there’s that great spoiler on mtgnews.com. It is gaining deeper and deeper acceptance as the real deal, and I think it is fair to put out some overall thoughts on what the color-bending tricks of Apocalypse mean in general, and then specifically for casual play.
ENEMY COLORS: WHY CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS?
Even with years put into this game, it is often difficult for me to remember that Invasion block was preceded by three successive blocks that barely cared about what colors you matched up with each other. (The Guildmages in Mirage, techically, stop the streak there.) Folks who do not spend a great deal of time in Extended or Type I duel environments probably have to work hard to remember black-green and red-white decks dominating Limited landscapes in Rath and Masques block, or blue-red Type II decks like CounterPhoenix.
It is a testament to how fundamentally different Invasion block has been from past blocks, that so many of us are excited about playing non-allied colors again. But this will not be just like riding a bicycle – at least not when you restrict yourself to Invasion block formats. Whether constructed or limited, Apocalypse’s release is, card-for-card, a more complex proposition than any other third set in Magic history.
To see why, you only have to look at a silly (and somewhat certain) common from the upcoming set:
Necra Disciple (C)
Creature – Wizard
G, T: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.
W, T: Prevent the next one damage that would be dealt to target creature or player this turn.
While probably not Constructed worthy (if you want to tap a poor first-turn blocker for any color mana, Birds of Paradise still rules), this is likely to be a popular mid-range pick in draft, and a pretty sure bet to make a lot of black-green sealed decks.
And black-green sealed decks will look pretty good anyway, right? There’s that new disk (Pernicious Deed), there are some fabulous gold creatures (they hit the mark dead-on with Llanowar Dead)…black-green just looks great.
It doesn’t matter if I’m right on this; any enemy-color combo will do. But for the sake of convenience, let’s stick with B-G. Easy call, right?
Well, hold on. Apocalypse is only one of three expansions in the block. Sealed decks will still get half their cards from Invasion, which sports NO support for black-green. Thornscape Apprentice, perhaps the best green Invasion common, will now require a color fixer. And when the sealed environment settles into opening one pack in each expansion, all of the gaters in Planeshift (like Fleetfoot Panther) will not jive well with your black-green vibe.
Well, heck, that’s all right – we’ll just go black-green-white, right? After all, the disciple’s second ability is pretty cool. If we have a decent store of white mana, we should be able to use it, and use the Apprentice tap ability, and play the Panther. Heck, throw in that Armadillo Cloak. Everyone wins, right?
That’s just great, until you realize you’re giving up some fabulous red-black and red-green, like a Terminate and a Hunting Kavu. Geez, now that you look at it, red’s ties with black and green might be stronger than white’s….
Here’s the bottom line. Invasion-Planeshift-Apocalypse is not like past blocks, where you could freely splash bombs like Warmonger and Congregate and get their full utility. With many quality Invasion block cards, you need to make a commitment to two or three colors. (The stock of exceptions, like the Djinns, just went up considerably.) Are the Invasion Masters as capable of grounding a deck anymore? Did legendary dragons just get better or worse (assume no Dragon Arch for the moment)? When you first-pick a Pyre Zombie in booster draft, open a Flametongue Kavu in Planeshift, and then open a Lightning Angel, what the hell happens?!?
Fortunately, casual players don’t always have to worry about all that nonsense. Let’s take a closer look at what this set may mean to us.
THE CASUAL APOCALYPSE
I am going to want to focus the attention of later Casual Fridays on actual multiplayer decks built with Apocalypse cards, and on one or two "Break this Card" contests (current candidates are Guided Passage and Wild Research, NOT because they are bad – I don’t think they are – but because they will be challenging for us to think about in multiplayer). So this article will focus on what Apocalypse seems to offer the multiplayer game. And overall, here’s my take: unlike Invasion and Planeshift, there are not so many obvious nods to the group game. But the more you look at this set, the more you see the terrific nuances that can serve the experienced multiplayer group well.
* First, the obvious cards: Pernicious Deed as the new Nevinyrral’s Disk, Powerstone Minefield as a super-Caltrops, and Lightning Angel as a funky Serra’s sister are the three that, to me, stand head and shoulders above the rest for group play. Every casual group around the world will see at least two of these cards played within a week of Apocalypse’s release.
* Next, the combo fodder: Symbiotic Deployment, which appears to erase the draw step and allow you to draw a card when you pay one and tap two creatures, has squirrel-and-saproling-combo written all over it. It may be balanced enough not to wreck formal constructed play; but in group it is a green Necro that doesn’t cost the player life. That makes it very viable in multiplayer. Expect to see it.
* The two Desolation creatures, Angel (Armageddon) and Giant (Wrath of God), are also high candidates for group play. The need to use either black or red to get these effects should lead to some fairly interesting new deck types. Or maybe people will just keep playing with Armageddon and Mageta.
* The creatures in the set include some of the most promising multiplayer creatures since Masques’ Mongers. Putrid Warrior may become my favorite – yes, even with the lifegain! It beats down, and then gives you control of the entire board’s life status. Thumbs up, or thumbs down? You decide, Caesar. Fungal Shambler is another card that gets a real boost in casual environments – partly because it’s more likely to get cast, and partly because it’s more likely to find a vulnerable opponent.
* As a set, the green Penumbra creatures are real slick for those of us who depend on a reliable aggressive strategy. Many times you need three creatures out before you attack in group: One to attack, and two to hold back since one might get wasted. But now, you can attack when you have two on the board, because if one gets shot down, another immediately comes to replace it. The basic effect is that of a Nemesis Seal card: You can nail me or this creature if you like, but why bother? Call it the Seal of Staying Right Here in Your Face, Brother.
* Another "signal" card is Whirlpool Warrior, which will threaten (or promise) to flush everyone’s hand for a new set. It doesn’t look like it will be discard, so it won’t go into your Windfall/Megrim deck; but it might fit in tidily with the uber-classic card Underworld Dreams.
* Bloodfire creatures are, of course, additional signals – I love this trend! And they hit flyers, too, which is reminiscent of Crater Hellion. Geez, I can’t remember, did anyone ever play with Crater Hellion?
* Countermagic got a very clever boost in group with the likely enemy-color gold counterspells. Whereas Counterspells – even Absorb and Undermine, since they impact life and not permanents – are typically one-for-one deals that don’t do well in multiplayer, these are more "efficient" from a Casual Fridays standpoint. Suffocating Blast lets you peg two cards for one. Looking even better, Mystic Snake GIVES you a permanent, replacing itself as it stops a key threat. A blue-green-red deck in multiplayer may just now be able to use these two, as well as Desertion and Forbid, to build a viable permission deck.
* More saprolings! Now we might get them from creatures we kill (Death Mutation, way too overcosted for anything BUT casual play) and creatures we bounce (Aura Mutation, and there’s GOT to be a fun way to abuse this with Deranged Hermit).
* All of the apparent color-shifting in Apocalypse may look like a waste at first, but I have a suspicion that many interesting decks will be built on this theme. While not all of them will be base blue, look for Sway of Illusion to return to someone’s deck, hopefully this time without Perish. (I mean, really! We can all do better than that.)
* Finally, back to the more obvious spells, there are two likely X spells – Captain’s Maneuver (a sort of Deflection for damage) and Death Grasp (a possibly too-good-to-be-true evolution of Drain Life) – that are your basic, big-swing cards in group.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention Cromat in the above list. I like Cromat – a lot. But I’m not sure there’s much gain there from a multiplayer environment. We’ll just have fun with it, along with other cool beasties like Spiritmonger, the "volvers," and Minotaur Illusionist.
That’s it for this week. The workload now is actually worse (each night until midnight, and since I imagine most state legislatures in America are going through a similar timeline, let’s all take a quiet moment to appreciate their hard, late work, even if it is more often than not a mess of their own making) than when I skipped a week just before Star City slipped away. But I didn’t want to screw you all over again: you’ve all waited long enough and I made a commitment. I do feel badly that it’s a bit short; with luck I was still insightful. Next week, the clouds part at work and I’ll have time to delve more deeply into some possible deck designs for Apocalypse-minded people.