The word “allies” has a lot of implied meaning. From anti-Nazi forces during World War II through the Gulf War, “allies” are the nations or groups that you rely on for support. The term isn’t just reserved for wartime; it comes up in games like Legend of the Five Rings, where you can call for allies in multi-player games to support your attack or defense positions. But in all these cases, it has a broad scope — an expansive feel that ties together nations under one shared cause.
For me, the world “ally” will always evoke playing the World War II simulation game Axis and Allies in high school. Some of the guys I was friends with and who played Dungeons and Dragons with us had a regular game of Axis and Allies, but always were struggling to find a fifth player to fill out an entire game. I would fill in from time to time as “Player Number 5.” I’m not sure why, but they always made me play England. Probably because I could do the least amount of damage there.
No offense, England.
So with all these connotations, I was a little surprised that Wizards chose “ally” as their keyword for Zendikar’s party-building mechanic. Allies are (in theory) working towards the same end, but generally of a grander scope than just a couple of guys who put together a raiding party. For instance, you wouldn’t call your adventuring buddies in D&D your “allies,” — you’d call them your friends or your cohorts or your compatriots or something with a little… smaller scope.
Surely word size has some impact — they needed a short keyword so that they could fit “Creature — Minotaur Warrior Ally” all one on type line. Heaven forbid there be a Legendary Ally in our future. It almost begs one of those substance-type “faux keywords” in the text box, rather than stubbornly shoehorning it into the creature type.
But hey, what do I know?
As a mechanic, though, Allies play pretty well — and obviously very well together. My first interaction with them was during the Zendikar Prerelease weekend. Even in Limited, if you can string two or three of them together, you generally are going to get creatures that have a decent size for their mana cost. And while doing some playtesting on Workstation getting ready for the upcoming Front Range Magic Team Challenge, I ran into a Constructed version of the Ally deck that certainly was capable of putting out huge early monsters.
I tend to think of Allies as very similar to Slivers, only with a bunch more Muscle Slivers than usual, and with the caveat that the pumps stick around even if I lose a Muscle Ally. But because Allies only trigger when another one comes into play, it’s less impressive to use the one-shot “static ability” Allies. Seascape Aerialist, for example, is no Winged Sliver.
The other great thing is that most of the really great Allies are common and uncommon — and the rare ones that you would want to play in a dedicated Ally deck are cheap to pick up.
Rating the Allies
The great Allies:
Oran-Rief Survivalist: Basically he’s a Muscle Sliver that only pumps himself up — but if you have a deck full of Allies, he’s going to pump himself up to 5/5 or 6/6 if your opponent doesn’t handle them early. He’s a great early drop to let you take advantage of all the higher-casting-cost Allies that will come later. As a solid two-drop, he’s the measuring stick for all the other Allies.
Kazandu Blademaster: For another specific mana, you pick up first strike and vigilance. That seems like a fair trade.
Turntimber Ranger: A great top of the curve, as he’s five power in two bodies for five mana, with the potential to keep growing as you drop late-game Allies. In a base-Green Ally deck, he’ll provide the power to break through any ground stalemates.
Umara Raptor: Essentially a Wind Drake on steroids, as you add another mana to our base Ally and give him flying. Another good Ally that helps in deciding the colors for the deck — for a nice aggressive creature base, I’d stick with Blue-White-Green — although with Harrow and other mana-fixing, we could go five-color, if we can find enough reasons to do so.
The good Allies:
Kazuul Warlord: I started out with him in the “good” section but he probably belongs in the “great” section. A 4/4 for five mana (and with only one Red mana symbol — friendly for Allies) that doesn’t just pump himself, but pumps your whole team, each time another Ally shows up — that’s pretty solid. The real reason, though, that I put him in “good” is because I keep trying to compare him to other “lords” that saw extensive play. Would anyone have played Lord of Atlantis on five mana? Wizened Cenn? Or, in a world with Vampire Nocturnus, are we destined for “lords” that cost more mana, but provide a bigger effect than just a simple +1/+1? In any case, at five mana, by the time he hits play your guys may already be decent-sized, which means he’s a “win-more” card that doesn’t need to be shoehorned into a three-color Ally deck. If you’re running all five, though, I’d include a few. Therefore, just “good.”
Sea Gate Loremaster: The ability is extraordinarily powerful. What was the last creature we saw that had potential to tap to draw more than one card? Arcanis? And he cost six mana. So he’s respectably costed for the ability — and in a dedicated Ally deck, you’re probably looking at drawing three or four cards if you can untap with him in play. The problem is, due to his powerful ability, he’ll have a big target on his head, and that three toughness means he dies to just about every piece of removal in the format. But it might just be good enough, since it’s probable that your opponent will have blown through removal trying to keep a handle on your early Allies — the Loremaster may show up and enable you to replenish the forces.
Seascape Aerialist: Due to the one-shot nature of his Winged ability, he’s probably more a situational Ally, but in a UWG Ally deck, I would definitely play them, as he does enable a pretty swell alpha strike.
Tuktuk Grunts: Having played with a couple of these guys in a draft, it’s hard to overlook a 3/3 haste at 5 mana, although I guess we’re used to 3/3 hasty guys costing 3 — thanks for ruining our future expectation, Boggart Ram-Gang. I really wish he granted haste to the other Allies, as that’s a reasonable use of the “one-off” triggered abilities on these Allies.
The situational Allies:
Highland Berserker: I can’t see his first-strike-granting ability being relevant too often, and he doesn’t pump himself up like Oran-Rief Survivalist and the rest, which means he’s relegated mostly to “filler Ally” — if you need to round out your creature base and you’re running Red. He’s certainly a fine man for the casting cost, which keeps him from being relegated to “useless” status.
Murasa Pyromancer: Reusable creature removal isn’t horrible in this format — I just wish he cost less than five. Or that he was able to deal damage directly to opponents. Either of those two would push him up into “great.” As a 3/2, he’s pretty vulnerable, but I guess getting one or two shots out of him would be worth five mana.
Ondu Cleric: How valuable is life gain? On one hand, life gain is generally reserved for Timmy, who gains great pleasure from gaining twenty life even though it doesn’t win him the game. But on the other hand, some great creatures with lifegaining abilities have made impacts in Constructed formats, like Kitchen Finks and Knight of Meadowgrain, just to name a couple from last year. Is Ondu Cleric a worthwhile addition who happens to have lifegain tacked on? I don’t think he’s QUITE that — he doesn’t grow himself, so he’s relegated to a support role in any deck that uses him — but in a format that’s showing a lot of aggro decks, lifegain added on to what you already want to do (play Allies) may be strong enough to make the cut.
Tajuru Archer: Sideboard material if you’re dealing with flyers. I imagine it would be quite humorous to take down a Baneslayer with one of these guys.
Hagra Diabolist: Again, the lack of flexibility just kills this guy. And he’s a horrible top-deck if your board is empty.
Makindi Shieldmate: Allies that grow are great. Allies that grow but can’t attack are less useful.
Nimana Sell-Sword: If you count Oran-Rief Survivalist as the measuring stick for Allies — and I do, to some extent — trading two extra mana for one extra power and toughness is not a good return on your investment.
Stonework Puma: No abilities, no inclusion.
As I said in the card breakdown, my initial reaction is to play Green-Blue-White, including only the really worthwhile Allies. I’d pattern it after CounterSliver, since that seems to be the closest relative to an Allies deck. CounterSliver still sees play in Legacy, so there’s a wealth of decks to look at for reference, like Rich Stachurski’s from last year’s MeanDeck Open:
Second Place, Meandeck Open December 28 2008
Now, we don’t have access to the free counterspells or the instant-speed activation of Aether Vial (I wish!), but we do have a pretty good selection of support spells in these colors to flesh out the deck.
As the Allies are really only good in numbers, I wanted to make sure I gave myself plenty of ways to protect them. Hindering Light, Negate, and Bant Charm all work to that end. Bant Charm serves double-duty as removal as well, and between it and Path to Exile, you should be able to keep the attacking lanes free of big guys that might trade with your ever-growing Allies. And I like Ponder just to smooth out draws.
But I could also see an all-out aggro version in Red-Green too …
I ended up deciding that it was easy enough to splash White, between the Jungle Shrines and the Khalni Heart Expeditions, so I added in Path as another removal spell. It could be Naya Charm instead, or a board-sweeper if you don’t want to add the third color.
Would Ally To You?
In short, I think there is enough just from Zendikar to start looking at Allies as a potential deck type — and it’s really friendly to deckbuilders with a budget. In more casual formats, it may be important to remember that Lorwyn’s Changelings all are Allies as well now, so you can get some fun interaction with those. And we can revisit these Allies as their treasure-finding exploits continue in Worldwake.
Next week: Fallout from the Front Range Magic Team Challenge! If you are within driving distance of Denver, I urge you to check out this cash tournament with a unique format next weekend. Plus more Standard as we get a clearer picture of the shape of the new format!
Until next week…
dave dot massive at gmail and davemassive on twitter and facebook