Eight Things I Learned About Onslaught Limited At The Prerelease (Plus A Larry King-Style Rant)

“Well,” he said with the air of a man giving change to a particularly leprous beggar,”You should run twenty lands, like I do. That’s enough land for – *snif* – your sort of deck.” The immediate temptation was to grab a chair and embed a seat cushion ten inches into his medulla oblongata… But he was closer to right than I had been at seventeen. Does Onslaught break the land count?

Eighteen Lands Are A Must.

Now, in my first match, I went up against a guy who was a beetuva. A”beetuva” – so called because he’s a”beetuva pr**k” – is someone who’s not quite a jerk, but edges along the border of jerkdom without stepping over it.

In one sense, beetuvas (or is that beetuvae?) are actually worse than outright jerks; you can’t really yell at them, because they never do anything bad. They just radiate a low-grade disapproval – as if they had been expecting to deal with your sort all along, but really, they had been hoping for something more.

The big guns in the beetuva repertoire are the snarky frown, the dismissive sniff – and in my beetuva’s case, the mildly acidic comment.

“Generally, where I come from, we shuffle each other’s decks before a game,” he said when I just thumped his deck and pushed it back to him.

“Well, I generally do at real tournaments,” I retorted, watching him scoop up my cards and shuffle.”But if you’re stacking your deck at a prerelease, you’re such a waste of human flesh that I wouldn’t know what to do with you.”


Anyway, his approach rattled me, and I kept a horrible hand by mistake – he was going first, and I said,”Good?” which he misinterpreted as me saying,”Good,” and began to play his cards as a result.

I had a one-land hand, but I was going first, and…

Oh, hell, you know how it is. Second land turned up around the fifth turn, just in time to mock me for being so damned timid. I folded. The second game wasn’t much better – I started off, drawing first, with a two-land hand, and didn’t see Land #3 until turn 5, followed by Land #4 on Turn 7.

Needless to say, I lost that one.

The beetuva scooped the cards and said something about the game.”How many lands you run?” he asked; I replied seventeen, with a fetch land.

“Well,” he said with the air of a man giving change to a particularly leprous beggar,”You should run twenty lands, like I do. That’s enough land for – *snif* – your sort of deck.”

Now, the immediate temptation was to grab a chair, embed a seat cushion soaked in my ass sweat about ten inches deep into his medulla oblongata, and scream,”I’m the editor of a frickin’ Magic site, all right? I may not be a pro, but I know the damn game!” and then take a whiz on his twitching body, spelling out”20 lands R crap” in my own feculence upon his T-shirt while everyone looked around.

But I restrained myself; partially because I try to be a nice guy, but mostly because he was closer to right than I was.

This format’s slow. It’s filled with big, clunky creatures. The mana curve is now a mana cliff. I should have had the sense to start with at least eighteen lands, and many discussions of the day said that certain decks could – and should – have gone to nineteen.

Seventeen lands was too little. I should have gone to eighteen at a minimum.


Which brings me to my next point…

1/1s Are Useless.

Someone I was talking to put it this way:

“Thanks to Morph, pretty much everyone has a guaranteed 2/2 drop on Turn 3, barring manascrew or something like that. There is also next to no bounce. Therefore, the tempo advantage you hoped to get it almost always taken away, and the early beats is only a point of two or damage. Since 1/1s in this format are usually pretty useless – barring Festering Goblin – they’re a waste of a slot. You can drop all of your pre-turn 3 plays and still win.”

He’s right. In other formats, I would be concerned about this strange and mysterious thing called”The Mana Curve,” and put in substandard low casting-cost creatures to flesh it out… But in Onslaught, the concept of tempo is almost nonexistent. You play your best creatures with the most power, and put enough land in to win, and see what you can do. Anything before two mana is so underpowered that three- and four-mana drops will outmuscle them without a second thought.

(Actually, I lie; there is one major tempo archetype in the format that I’ve seen, but I’ll get to that.)

So run your best guys. Screw mana curve; Onslaught is all about power.

The Cold War Is Firmly In Evidence.

The only questions Americans were asking in the early 1960s were all about The Bomb.

Did Cuba have The Bomb? Did Israel have The Bomb? Could China – God help us all! – have The Bomb?

Onslaught Block is so bomb-oriented that I think Dr. Strangelove designed it.

Does your opponent have the bomb? Because you’d better clutch your pants and hope you, do, too… Because if he does and he gets it on the table, you’re dead.

And to go against my usual penchant for exaggerating, I’m not being that outrageous here.

I think I know what they were doing; by placing so many gamebreakers in the set, they hoped it would sort of average out. Everyone would get a bomb, and it would be Legend Fighting to the death. Whee!

Well, I didn’t get a Rorix, Bladewing or a Visara. And the big problem is that there are no consistently-worthwhile common ways of disposing of a Legend.

Oh, you can neutralize Legends; there are tons of ways to sort of hurt the thousand bombs in the set. (There are so many bombs hidden in this set that Princess Diana tried to get the UN to sign a petition to ban it.) You can Pacify one, or you can maybe turn it into a Wall, or you can try to race one…

But killing one?

With the common cards?

Ain’t gonna happen. You can Erratic Explosion it, maybe, or you can Pinpoint Avalanche it if you got that, or you can Cruel Revival it, or you can Death Pulse it…

Um, so you’re playing white or green? Sayonara, baby. Nothin’ you can do except buy time and pray.

And that hurts, because they can neutralize your neutralization. You’d better hope you get a bomb, because either it’s that or you’re dead. When Geordie Tait said that there were some mighty incompetent players at the 4-0 table, they weren’t quite as bad as what he said… But the fact is, it is possible to open the autowin.dec and win with it, with less skill than there ever has been before.

(I know. I’ve opened the autowin.dec, and it was still a trial.)

So be warned. Your card quality is more important to a win than ever before! I’m not saying that skill doesn’t matter – of course it does – but it now matters less.

(Now, Laura Mills went on record yesterday as saying, and I quote,”One might argue that there are several broken cards in this set, but the difference in Onslaught is that there is balance.” Laura is correct about some things… But three things need to be clarified.

(One is that a”bomb” is not necessarily always a rare – though most of the bomb creatures are. Choking Tethers and Wave of Indifference are bombs, mostly for the reasons listed below. Two is that her response to dealing with huge creatures can be done thanks to Wave of Indifference and Taunting Elf basically says what I do – your only hope is to outrace them!

(Now keep in mind that you’re”outracing” a three-turn clock like Silvos, Rorix, or any number of other huge creatures – and that you’re outracing only one card. You have to commit five zillion soldiers to attack, whereas they can just use their Exalted Angel to start shafting you. So in short, the only answer is to race faster against a better defense. Yup. That’s good play.

(Thirdly, the absurdity of someone like Laura saying that it’s not about bombs when she had the most bomb-filled deck I’ve ever seen is ridiculous. Okay, Dan Tack gives a better argument for saying Onslaught is skill-based? But Laura, you had a deck with Dragon Roost, ten beasts – which is statistically way above average – one of which was Ravenous Baloth, plus Riptide Replicator to churn out Beasts on command.

(That would be good enough, but you also had two Wirewood Savages to draw cards on demand from your army of Beasts, both Taunting Elf and Wave of Indifference to break through in case someone could actually match you, and Shock to mop up anything that doesn’t feel like attacking. As Geordie Tait said to me in an ICQ conversation about this,”Believe it or not, Dragon Roost didn’t win it alone! I also had a near-infinite life combo, and could Ancestral myself every turn!”

(Laura, you got the bomb. I’m happy for ya. But your deck was nothing to really judge Onslaught fairly from….)

Blisterguy Will Be Making Appearances Throughout The Season.

Now, blisterguy had his two amazing prerelease articles, both of which were pretty handy, and he made some very astute observations about the set.

But one of those observations was one that changes all of the decisions you will ever make during Onslaught; he said one thing that I guarantee you will be hearing, or at least thinking, several times until Legions comes out:

There are no”fogs” in Onslaught.

I repeat: There are no”fogs.”

In other words, once you commit to an attack, if your creatures are going to get through to your opponent’s face, there is not a trick in the world that can save him. There are surprise ways of pumping a creature, there are surprise ways of making something big…

But nothing that prevents all damage.

But let’s combine this absence of”fog” effects with the fact that the removal (particularly instant-speed removal) is scarce, and you have an environment where aggression in attacking is rewarded.

In other words, if you can punch through with fatal damage, they have to kill your creature to save themselves… And chances are, they won’t have it.

That makes cards like Wave of Indifference, Akroma’s Blessing, and Choking Tethers potential first-picks. You can Alpha Strike without fear of a Tangle, or a Moment’s Peace, or an Elephant Ambush or a Beast Attack or whatever else is out there – in other words, when the opportunity comes, you take it.

White Is The Color Of Choice.

Pretty much everyone who had no bombs to elbow them into a color went with white. White is now so powerful that maindecking Disciple of Malice is not a bad call, despite the fact that several internet writers have sneered at it.

Why white? Because its commons almost always provide a solid creature base to work with – and a lot of white’s commons have effects that increase in multiples. I saw more Daru Cavaliers, Daru Lancers, Daunting Defenders, Grassland Crusaders, and Gustcloak Harriers in decks than I did anything else. White’s a solid color – not packed with bombs, but the creatures that work are even enough.

In the future, the words”I’m playing white” may well be a synonym for”I wish my deck was better.” You heard it here first, folks.

Green Is Your Psycho Girlfriend.

When it’s good, it’s so good. But when it’s bad…

Seriously, I thought Green would be the baby I’d be dating come Onslaught; it’s already been established that I like ’em chubby, and Green’s got so much fat…

But isn’t it the case with all bad relationships that she requires too much commitment?

A lot of people I spoke to said the same things about their deck – they liked their green, but all the double casting-costs were too much to get into. In Onslaught, you’ll find that it is often difficult to splash green; since many of the late-game green common bombays require a double-scoop of that emerald goodness, it’s impossible to flirt with green.

You have to take her all the way home.

Erratic Explosion Is Pretty Damn Good…

Okay, this surprised me; it looked like every crap”red’s the color of chaos, so that’s our excuse for creating ladles of steaming dog crap with RR in the cost” card that R&D loves to come up with.

But you know? In this environment? It’s not as bad as you’d think.

A lot of people were shrugging when they played it, saying,”What the hell. It’s a prerelease.” But they forgot the environment. In this set, the mana curve is so screwed that you’re probably not playing with a horde of two-mana drops the way you might in, say, Invasion – you’re playing with three and up.

More often than not, you’ll get an expensive Shock at a minimum – which is not bad, given the scarcity of removal in Onslaught – and if you’re playing with heavy morph, you can luck into four or five more often than you’d think. I was surprised, but by the end of the day many people were considering this a staple card. Don’t rule it out.

…While Backslide Is Not

I had Backslide, and I thought it would be good card with all the morph out there. I discovered that it’s much worse than I would have believed.

You see, most good players don’t cast anything before combat. That means that Backslide, except for rare occasions, won’t dispatch any large already-morphed creatures; they’ll just pay the cost again. It might be handy in response to a sudden morph early on in the game… But then you usually don’t have the mana to spare, since you’re spending your early turns casting creatures, which means that it’s good only on defense when you went first and cast your 2/2 and untapped first.

I spent more games with this card in my hand….

It could be a good aggro card – but Backslide is blue, which doesn’t have the most aggressive attacking colors. You’re generally waiting for a Choking Tethers or something else to break a creature stalemate, which renders the morphed critter irrelevant anyway. It might work in, say, an aggro deck paired with blue’s enemies – U/R or U/G – but it’s not a good card for U/W no matter how you slice it. I’m not saying it’s unplayable, but I am saying that it’s much narrower than it looks.

…And Shepherd Of Rot Is Broken.

Remember what I said about the early one-drops sucking? Well, let me clarify:

The early one-drops are sucking your life away.

I got pounded by one deck that was packed with low drops, and it was the only tempo deck in the format that I could see – it was a cleric/zombie deck that used commons like Festering Goblin, the Disciples, and a host of other one- and two-drops to get some (very) early damage in. Then they’d stall on the ground, your life totals being roughly even but with his being one or two above yours…

Until Shepherd of Rot hit the ground.

Wow, does that thing end games fast.

Basically, the Shepherd puts you on a four-turn clock, or maybe three with a solid draw; he’ll suck away life totals from both of you as you frantically try to break through for some damage or pop the Shepherd.

And remember how you were one or two points below him? That’s right, you die first. Mix in Cabal Archon for some cleanup work and the ability to leap ahead four points when need be, a couple of cheap clerics who prevent damage for the few turns you need it, and the overly-powerful Cruel Revival to target anything too big, and you can easily see the outlines of a soon-to-be overdrafted archetype – B/W Clerics and Zombies.

(Extra points to anyone who makes the first legitimate reference to”Zombie Jamboree” and knows what it means. Adam Rubens, you are excused.)

Other Miscellany, Larry King-style! Easily Skippable!

  • Good God, Future Sight is powerful. I’m not entirely sure that it’s Constructed-worthy… But if it is, it’s not for lack of trying. I watched some kid playing it, and he beat me on autopilot when he hit the table; getting free lands, extra spells, and the equivalent of automatic card-drawing is Some Good. But man, that cost… My sneaking suspicion is that the cost pushes Future Sight up into the”win more” category, but I could be wrong.
  • Why are wicker baskets such excellent armor, and when did all the Clerics on Dominaria get wickermail? Was there a meeting where they all said,”You know who was really buff? The Scarecrow, from the Wizard of Oz. To instill fear in our enemies, we must look like Ray Bolger!
  • Meddle doesn’t have that many targets to work with in Onslaught so far, but those it does are amusing. I hijacked a Lavamancer’s Skill, thus ending one game, and watched a couple of Improvised Armors get slipped on the most unlikely of targets.
  • Instant Skill Test: Wellwisher.
  • Who the hell decided to call Goblins”Skirks”? When did Wizards decide that good old Goblins wasn’t enough and they had to start mucking around with moggs and skirks and whatnot? I am very skirked by all of this.
  • I still don’t know whether Spy Network is worth it.
  • Wretched Anurid is great against R/B and R/G decks, but is less impressive versus white or blue. I witnessed many a man attacking into huge fatties with his Anurid, desperately trying to get rid of it. They’re good enough to start main if you’re playing black as a main color, but know when to side them out.
  • Does”Hystrodon” just sound too close to”Hysterectomy” to be comfortable for anyone but me? And if they print a Hysterectomy, shouldn’t that be a red card?
  • The true test of a Johnny is opening Insurrection; it’s 5RRR, and it won’t always win you the game, but it is powerful. I think most pros wouldn’t bother if they had any better cards… But a Johnny will cheerfully toss away win after win in an attempt to get the golden prize – an Insurrection win!
  • Pinpoint Avalanche is well worth it; yeah, it’s overcosted, but let’s not forget that”can’t be prevented” bit. Woo!
  • Since we’re calling Goblins”Skirks” now for no good reason, I now demand that Wizards make the following changes: All shapeshifters will be called”Puttyface” (“Puttyfaced Morphling”), all dragons will be called”Moofies,” all zombies will be called”Phil,” and all elves will be called”Big Flouncing Ponces.”
  • How many people opened up Rorix, Bladewing and some other legend? Isn’t Rorix enough for you? Especially when I got none of the big guys?
  • Green gets Disenchant now? That’s fair; I mean, white was getting so overplayed that we needed to tone it down. It’s not like Red couldn’t use, say, Counterspell or anything.

Signing off,

The Ferrett

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