Tribal Thriftiness #16 – The Search for Uncommons Continued

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Thursday, March 27th – Following from last week’s column, Dave goes digging into more pre-constructed decks to find out which blocks gave good value on their precon offerings.

Greetings, one and all!

Before we get to far into today’s column, let me start by saying that I hope no one’s brackets were too busted up by Duke’s roll on the critical failures table over the weekend. I, for one, am not heartbroken; Xavier happens to be my alma mater, and I much prefer their chances against West Virginia. Granted, my bracket has UCLA winning the whole shebang, so it’s not like I think they’re going that far.

But still, one more week to hang out the giant blue “X” flag!

The Odyssey Continues

Trite lead-in aside… when last we parted ways, we were taking a look at whether the pre-constructed decks provide you with enough good commons and uncommons to actually build Constructed-worthy decks. We left off with Invasion, which really set the bar in terms of the presence of good cards in the precons. Can Odyssey pick up where Invasion left off?

Odyssey was the first “graveyard” block. It also pushed the upper boundary of “new mechanics that can be present in a base set,” overmaxing on both Threshold and Flashback, and the precons really reflect that – three are built around Threshold, and the other around Flashback. As a result, the uncommon and common choices reflect that. That being said, there still are some good staple cards around – removal cards like Firebolt, Ghastly Demise, and Innocent Blood all find their way into “Pressure Cooker,” and there are two Beast Attacks and two Sylvan Mights in “One-Two Punch.” Probably the best of the bunch is, and I cringe to type this, “Trounce-O-Matic,” which had the beginnings of the block-staple Threshold Deck: two Nimble Mongoose and a Roar of the Wurm in the uncommon slots, as well as two Werebears, two Careful Studies (later used in Madness and Dredge decks) and two Wild Mongrels. The last precon, “Liftoff,” barely had any good cards; the best I can suggest is two of the Flashback-defeating Syncopate.

Torment. The “Black Set.” It will come as no surprise to you that all the precons are also Black, each picking a pairing color, and after the uncommon dual land push from Invasion block, it should also not surprise you that Wizards continued that trend by putting a pair of the uncommon Tainted lands (like Tainted Peak) into each of these precons. The Black-Green “Insanity” deck lived up to its name, if only by providing you with the rest of the Green monsters for the Madness deck: three Basking Rootwallas, three Wild Mongrels, and two Arrogant Wurms. “Grave Danger” provided the Aquamoebas (three) while also dishing out the last two Careful Studies and two Psychatogs. It also had two Compulsions, two Chainer’s Edicts, and a Breakthrough. Putrid Imp has become a mainstay in Extended now, and there were three in “Sacrilege,” as well as a Zombify and an Ichorid in the rare slot, if you were intent on building Dredge… as well as three Buried Alive. “Waking Nightmare” was the stinker of the set, but it was centered around the Nightmare creature mechanic, so it had to take what it was given.

Let’s get away from the Nightmares and move on to the sunny fields of Judgment. “Air Razers” was a Blue-Red deck centered around fliers, and had a Wonder, two Compulsions, and a Concentrate in the uncommon slots, as well as three Lava Darts, which are seeing play in Extended right now. Two more Roar of the Wurm were available in “Painflow,” a deckname not much better than “Trounce-O-Matic,” as well as two Moment’s Peaces and three Werebears. “Inundation,” the mono-White “weenie” deck, had two Battle Screeches, which I happen to like, but not much else. The winner of Judgment’s precons is probably “Spectral Slam,” which had the combo of two Phantom Centaurs (and a bunch of other Phantom creatures) and two Elephant Guides, and had the added bonus of having Mirari’s Wake in the rare slot.

Due to the persistence of a couple of powerful mechanics, the Odyssey seasons in Standard were somewhat stagnant. Of the uncommons from the block, only a couple of Blue cards stand out as missing from this last: Circular Logic and Standstill. Circular Logic was a mainstay of the Blue-Green Madness deck in Standard, and Standstill still sees play in the older formats to this day.

Onslaught: Precursor to Lorwyn?

Since Onslaught was the first creature-type block, it will be interesting to see how its precons stack up to Lorwyn’s … although we may not be able to critique Lorwyn’s for quite a while. Well, at least not fairly. I didn’t say I wouldn’t try. Onslaught also features the return of the Cycling mechanic, which played a relevant role in the Standard of that time period.

… Wait. There’s no Goblin precon? There’s no Zombie precon? What the habeas corpus? Really? A Mistform precon? Hokay, here we go. Said Mistform precon, “Bait and Switch,” (which is what I’m feeling now) has… a Smother. The Bird Soldier deck, “Celestial Assault,” has… an Akroma’s Blessing? I think they ran that in Slide at some point? “Devastation” has three Explosive Vegetations, those saw play, and a Naturalize and an Erratic Explosion? “Ivory Doom” is the winner, and that’s not saying much here, but it does contain two more Smothers, another Akroma’s Blessing, and an Astral Slide, as well as four Secluded Steppes. But yikes. Either those were stinkers, or Onslaught was just not a really good block.

Legions at least gives us our Zombie precon, the cleverly-titled “Zombies Unleashed” (like you’d have a zombie on a leash), and some of these did see play in Zombie decks of the time. Most notably, the deck contains two Withered Wretch, which is still popular now thanks to Time Spiral. There’s also two Shepherd of Rot in there, which was played in the Cleric deck, if I remember correctly. “Elvish Rage” pushed the limit on Elf cards and pushed the idea of the “dudes-only” Legions mindset, being a precon of 35 dudes and 25 land – two Wirewood Hivemasters and two Gempalm Striders, as well as two Timberwatch Elf, which I remember fearing in draft but never in Constructed. “Morph Mayhem” had a pair of Willbenders and a Whipcorder, but focused heavily on morphs (as you can imagine) and so didn’t have much else. The last one, “Sliver Shivers,” had the Slivers of the time, but they paled in comparison to the Tempest ones. It did have two Explosive Vegetations and two Akroma’s Blessings, as well as four Pacifisms, though.

Finally, in Scourge, you get your Goblin precon… was it worth the wait? It certainly contains a lot of the Goblins that rode in Goblin decks of the time – Goblin Sledder, Goblin Brigand, Sparksmith – as well as a Gempalm Incinerator and a Goblin Warchief to boot – but it does try and spread the love a little thin. It does have two good rares, though: Siege-Gang Commander (who we all know and love in Xth Edition) and Sulfuric Vortex, which lived in a lot of Goblin sideboards. The rest of the decks, however, live up to the Onslaught standard of providing Suck: “Pulverize,” one Slice and Dice and two Pyrostatic Pillars; “Max Attax,” one Smother and two Temple of the False God; “Storm Surge,” … waitaminute. “Storm Surge” is about the Storm mechanic, but it’s a weenie deck? I guess that’s the surge part. Luckily we didn’t have a Surge mechanic back then. Awkward! The deck’s uncommons are pretty good, actually, including two Silver Knights and a White Knight, another Whipcorder and another Willbender, and three Wing Shards. Plus there’s that Mind’s Desire sitting in the rare slot.

On the whole, Onslaught Block missed. No Tendrils of Agony or Brain Freeze in the Storm-based precon? No cycling deck featuring Lightning Rift? But the flip side is that Onslaught Block was underpowered as a whole, and outside of a few decks (Goblins, I’m lookin’ at you), it really didn’t deliver in ANY arena.

The Man in the Mirrodin

And so we come to the Urza’s Saga to Onslaught’s Mercadian Masques, the Affinity-creating Mirrodin Block. I think maybe I give the whole block a bad rap simply because of Darksteel, but we shall see.

Straight out of the gate, “Bait and Bludgeon” had the makings of the first Affinity deck. Three Frogmites. Three Myr Enforcers. Two Somber Hoverguards. Full sets of the Blue and Black artifact lands. Two Thirst for Knowledge and a Thoughtcast. Even a Broodstar in the rare slot! Seriously, how it’s Black and has no Disciple of the Vault, I have no idea. That’s fairly amazing. I have a feeling that the others will have trouble meeting that initial outburst. The Disciples were hiding out in “Sacrificial Bam” (ugh) (three of ‘em), along with two Atogs and a Shrapnel Blast. That one also has sets of the Black and Red artifact lands, so you would have been set by then. Not too shabby. “Little Bashers,” the weenie-equipment deck, did have a Loxodon Warhammer, as well as two Leonin Skyhunter, but not much else. Disappointing. “Wicked Big” was, I imagine, the anti-artifact deck, with two Viridian Shamans and two Creeping Molds as uncommons (as well as two Tel-Jilad Chosen, which saw play), but I think it had a long way to go.

Just in case you hadn’t gotten the shove down the path yet, Darksteel brings you a step closer to “Just Play This, Stupid.” “Transference,” the Modular-themed precon, had four Arcbound Workers and two Skullclamps. It also had two Echoing Truths. The relative supremacy of Affinity in this timeframe leaves everything else in the dust, unfortunately. “Master Blaster” had… two Electrostatic Bolts and a Molten Rain? “Swarm & Slam” had… two Viridian Shaman? And I tried to find something nice to say about “Mind Swarm,” but when the nicest thing you can say is “hey, I played Chittering Rats,” it’s time to give up.

Fifth Dawn finishes off this block. I can’t decide, yet, if I think the precons are bad simple because of the prevalence of Affinity, or if the prevalence of Affinity was going to cause everything else to be comparatively bad whether I was doing this retrospectively or not. Can’t say. Anyway, let’s start with “Nuts and Bolts,” which can give you some decent uncommons: two Auriok Salvagers, an Ornithopter, and a Skullclamp. The deck also included three Trinket Mages, which are popular in Extended, and three Chromatic Spheres. “Special Forces” has a Loxodon Warhammer, an Annul, and a Shattered Dreams, as well as two Devour in Shadow. Sounds like what I do to Zingers. Om nom nom. The quality slips a little with “Stampede,” despite having Eternal Witness on the box (and one inside!) … unfortunately, the best the deck can do is pair her with a single Slith Firewalker and a single Magma Jet. And “Sunburst” contains two Etched Oracle, which I hear mentioned in back halls every once in a great while.

I think Mirrodin is the first block that really suffers in this comparison. The dominance of Affinity during its time in Standard meant that some of these other ideas never got off the ground… and cards that have found purpose after the fact aren’t represented. No Isochron Scepter. Heck, there wasn’t really an Imprint precon. No Krark-Clan Ironworks. No Aether Vial. No Night’s Whisper or Barter in Blood. The really odd one for me – no Oxidize. Even niche cards like Channel the Suns, which now sees play in Extended Mind’s Desire, is missing from the Sunburst deck.

We Are The Champions

The entire Kamigawa block has been billed as a “necessarily underpowered evil” to offset Mirrodin block, but I always enjoyed the sets. They were full of flavor, and played interestingly with Ravnica, which came after it. But were there a lot of good uncommons and commons to fetch out of the precons? Were there even good uncommons and commons?

Champions had samurai and spirits and snakes! Oh my! The samurai precon, “Way of the Warrior,” played into the samurai theme, and so included a number of samurai cards that never made it in competitive play. It did contain two Reciprocates and an Otherworldly Journey, the precursor to today’s Momentary Blink. Spirits showed up in “Kami Reborn,” but again, due to the focus of the deck, the only cards that saw play were two Kodama’s Reach, a common. The snake precon, “Snake’s Path,” had two Strength of Cedars, a Time of Need, and a Sensei’s Divining Top, as well as three Sakura-Tribe Elder. “Spiritbane,” the final precon, sadly does nothing to bring up the overall strength of the cards; three Yamabushi’s Flame is the best it can muster. However, this is the first time that I did not cringe while typing at least one of the precon names. That’s gotta account for something.

Betrayers, on the other hand, has the notable distinction of being the set with the single-most sought after precon ever: “Rats’ Nest.” The presence of the Twenty Dollar Toothpick (Umezawa’s Jitte) in a ten-dollar precon meant that every store within a fifty-mile radius of a Magic player was likely sold out of them. This even applied to Toys ‘R’ Us’s in Germany. Believe me, I looked. The deck also had two Horobi’s Whispers, a Rend Flesh, and a Nezumi Graverobber, but who cared what else was in the deck? The deck overshadowed the other precons by a wide margin, and rightly so. The Ogre-Demon precon “Dark Devotion” was also noteworthy for containing a decent rare as the only good card: Yukora, the Prisoner. “Spiritcraft” was even less, with literally nothing of use. The “Ninjitsu” deck contained Higure, the Still Wind and a number of ninjas, including three Mistblade Shinobi and three Ninja of the Deep Hours, a Hinder, and a Shuriken, but still it failed to be remembered as anything other than, “that deck that came out with ‘Rats’ Nest.'”

Would Spirits, arguably the focal race of Kamigawa, get their comeuppance in Saviors of Kamigawa? I wouldn’t hold your breath. The final Spirit-based precon, “Spirit Flames,” petered out like the others. It did have a Hana Kami in it, which factored into a combo deck of the time. “Soratami’s Wisdom” has the scoop card Charge Across the Araba, as well as two Counsel of the Soratami, two Descendent of Kiyomaro, and a singleton Hail of Arrows, which we know and love today for its ability to dust all those X/1 Faeries. “Critical Mass” contained a Hand of Cruelty (which saw play in Block Constructed) and a Flames of the Blood Hand, but oddly no Gnarled Mass – that was in “Truth Seekers.” Yes, that’s the nicest thing I can say about the deck.

Headlined by the “Rats’ Nest” precon and sidelined by the raw strength of Affinity, the Kamigawa block of precons didn’t really give us anything. The Dampen Thought combo was more of a draft thing, although people did try to make it work in Standard. Hideous Laughter is missing, and is the one uncommon I actually bought during that time. Samurai of the Pale Curtain did not make an appearance, nor did Tallowisp. But by and large, the Kamigawa block has been viewed as a “cooling off” period for Magic, so that’s not surprising.

Bright Lights, Big City

Okay, that brings us up to Ravnica, and we all expect that things will improve. So let’s pick up there next week… and by then, we’ll also have new Shadowmoor goodies to crack into. Man, I cannot wait. I always get excited when new sets start getting near…

Until next time!