Thursday, February 2, 2012

Design Review of Dark Ascension—Red

White | Blue | Black | Red | Green | Other

Afflicted Deserter shows the evolution of the werewolf mechanic: transform triggers. Whenever it becomes Werewolf Ransacker, you get a free Smash to Smithereens. Not bad. I'm a fan of this trigger. Werewolves totally freak out when they are unleashed. An upgraded Manic Vandal seems like a plenty flavorful ability here.

As Jules points out in his Design Review, there's only one other transform trigger in the set and on Huntmaster of the Fells. As a player, I can't help but be excited about this Mythic because it does everything, is plainly undercosted, and uses the werewolf mechanic in a new and exciting way: Instead of wanting to get to the back side of your card and stay there as long as possible, you want to keep transforming back and forth as often as you can. That's fun because it turns the werewolf game you're used to on its head. Like the Ransacker, Ravager of the Fells has a very flavorful trigger, causing him to go on a ravaging frenzy, mauling not one, but two hapless targets.

Where I have a bit more trouble (apart from power level concerns) is with the flavor of the human side's transform trigger. Why does becoming human again grant life and generate wolves? Maybe the Huntmaster is such a master of his lycanthropy that he has learned how to heal via transformation. Or perhaps he just wakes up afterward and feels invigorated. And the wolf, well, maybe it's acting like a bodyguard. "Hey, that awesome what you did last night. I know you're vulnerable during the day and I don't want to see you lynched, so let me hang out and protect you so we can run around some more tomorrow night." You buying this? Ish? Yeah. Same here.

Alpha Brawl is a red Plague Wind. Funny, we made a mythic hydra for M13 that we later realized was a green Plague Wind that sometimes also gives you an 8/8. We've nixed it since, but it's fascinating to see something so similar in red. I'm a fan of the new string of red Wraths (Chain Reaction, Blasphemous Act, etc): I think red should have the ability to kill everything in a ten-mile radius and I agree that it should be generally worse at it than white/black. Green, not so much.

I was surprised how many players thought Blood Feud was just a much more expensive Prey Upon. There's something to be learned here about expectation and shortcuts. That is, Magic has so much text, that players will use every shortcut they can to help simplify and speed their understanding. As such, expectations of similarity are created and that causes confusion when two effects look similar but aren't. The worst recent offender in this regard is the group represented by Falkenrath Noble, Rage Thrower, Unruly Mob and Village Cannibals. Normally, Wizards avoids similar but different triggers to avoid this type of confusion. I suspect they made an exception for the death trigger in this set because of how death-focused the set already is. I'm not convinced they were right to do so. I've been playing Innistrad Limited for a third of a year now, and I still see players confusing these triggers.

Is Burning Oil a weak or poor two-color design? It's a legitimate question. I've heard arguments that it's weak because red shouldn't have its burn limited to combatants, but I've heard the opposite because the card does something that both colors can do (kill creatures) in a way that neither color is restricted from doing (during combat). Let's consider alternatives. Lightning Helix would've been a poor choice since red doesn't gain life on its own and white doesn't damage whomever it wants. Thunder Strike / Skillful Lunge would have fit this two-color-flashback mold perfectly, why not print that? If there were already a red first strike instant in Innistrad that could explain it, but I'm not sure Vampiric Fury qualifies. Maybe they just needed more removal spells? I'm not sure why they went with Burning Oil, but for the record, I'm fine with this style of two-color design.

Curse of Bloodletting is a beating. One-sided Furnace of Wrath is the perfect concept for a curse. It combos well with Curse of the Pierced Heart and Curse of Thirst, which is nice. I'm sure there are players looking to make a curse deck and I hope they don't get blown out by a Parasalene (but what are the chances of that) and find some way to make up for the fact that they all cost 5.

Erdwal Ripper is an obvious evolution for vampires. Obvious is good. If there weren't a Ripper, we'd be disappointed. I wonder if Markov Blademaster (also a required evolution) started life as an uncommon and was pushed to rare because it proved so strong?

If you haven't played or seen Faithless Looting played yet, you are missing out. Even though you end up down a card in the standard case, the advantage you gain in card quality is truly surprising. I didn't expect Looting to suck, but I've still been impressed how strong it is. Comparisons to Ponder are not unreasonable. On the topic of red looting, I will direct you to JVWoodward's excellent article on the subject.

Fires of Undeath is an interesting choice, in light of Zac Hill's article in which he talks about not reprinting Morbid Hunger because it is so much better than it looks, giving better players an invisible edge that frustrates their opponents. I'm forced to assume that Dev felt Fires fixes the problem by being more obviously good. Three mana for 2 damage is certainly weak, but if Bump in the Night had a place, surely a card that kills creatures for a similar cost must be okay? I'll be curious to see how this plays out.

Flayer of the Hatebound, awesome/awkward name aside is pretty exciting. Making Pandemonium one-sided negates the only substantial concern with the card. I suspect this card would have been a curse instead of a creature if they hadn't just printed Warstorm Surge in M12. Making it combo with undying (and Gravecrawler [and Haakon, Stromgald Scourge]) is a nice tie-in for the set, and delivers the best Devil flavor in the block.

Fling is not the first card to be reprinted so soon, but it further helps dispel the myth that "we can't reprint X. The last block just had that" which I can personally say tends to seep in otherwise.

Forge Devil is a tricky little bastard. At first, you read it as a Sparkmage Apprentice that costs 1 life in place of 1 generic mana. Cool, right? Don't cast it without any other creatures OTB or it'll kill itself and burn you, adding insult to injury. This is a one-drop you won't want to drop until the midgame. Once you realize that, you can think of it more like Spawning Breath, but I have been yelled at for making cards that look like they should be cast early when they really shouldn't, and that argument holds extra true for Forge Devil. Good design? Well... it is a devil.

It's about time they properly shifted Nettling Imp / Alluring Siren into red. Putting that ability on a devil is perfect. Go go, Heckling Fiends. Not bad how it supports your Bloodcrazed Neonate either.

Hellrider is the only card I preordered from Dark Ascension. So awesome, yet so not $10-$40 each like Huntmaster of the Fells or Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. It doesn't feel as implicitly devillish as Flayer of the Hatebound or Heckling Fiends, but it's close enough for me.

Hinterland Hermit is an interesting little card. Hinterland Scourge doesn't read terribly well, but it plays astonishingly well with your vampires. Bloodcrazed Neonate wants him, Crossway Vampire wants to be him and Rage Thrower wants to be near him. Now seems as good a time as any to mention that Pyreheart Wolf is also amazing with these same creatures and with the Hermit himself. This is the most I've seen red push its blocker prevention theme and I hope this is a sign of future trends (though not to this extent, of course).

I don't think it was in the main file, but we had at least considered a card like Pyreheart Wolf. Ours was not nearly as strong, making only two creatures hard to block and—obviously—not having an extra life. Interesting how far the Wolf goes.

Immerwolf has a number of interesting things going on. Like Howlpack Alpha, it pumps not just werewolves, but also wolves. The ability to keep your werewolves from flipping back to their human side is great for the whole tribe, except the one other red-green werewolf, Huntmaster of the Fells (not the he's exactly worthless as a 5/5 trampler). And finally, we have our first instance of multi-colored intimidate. It's funny to hear people complain about how bad intimidate is on Immerwolf: Yes, it's worse than it would be on a mono-color creature, but Immerwolf is still vastly better with it than without.

Increasing Vengeance sure is strictly better than Reverberate. What? Reverberate wasn't seeing play? Carry on.

Mondronen Shaman is just one card, yet I still kinda read it as another evolution for werewolves. I think that's because its ability is so tied to the mechanic. That Tovolar's Magehunter will do almost as much damage to your for causing it to revert as it would swinging in combat is a pretty daunting prospect. The flavor is very appropriate to the clan: "Screw magic, let's tangle!"

Markov Warlord is a nice combination of Erdwal Ripper and Crossway Vampire. Hmm, it's actually more like Night Revelers than Ripper. Okay, now I'm starting to second-guess how necessary Erdwal Ripper was. Eh. Haste likes more haste.

Nearheath Stalker also reminds me of Night Revelers. Basically, vampires have 2 power or 4, because, um, they hate odd numbers instead of garlic on this plane. Yeah. On its own, Stalker reminds me of Scuzzback Marauders, and that can't be a bad thing.

I guess I'm part of the group that feels Moonveil Dragon and Balefire Dragon probably shouldn't exist on this plane. They were a concession to the crowd who loves dragons, but they hurt the theme and I wish they, like George Lucas, would have chosen artistic integrity over base pandering. As a dragon design, Moonveil seems fine, though I'd expect the flavor to have some connection to the ability.

Russet Wolves is the ninth functional Hill Giant reprint.

Scorch the Fields continues the modern trend of printing land removal only as part of a more expensive package. Why do burning fields only hurt humans? No one else hangs out in fields, I guess?

Shattered Perception is a nice way for aggro red decks to purge excess lands in favor of new burn spells. The flashback seems like it would be useful, but at six mana, it no longer fits that strategy. Surely there is a grixis deck out there that doesn't mind.

I played Talons of Falkenrath in a game of Pack Wars. I thought I could pump my unbocked creature infinitely, but my opponent informed me there was a five mana limit on activated abilities. I'm sure this card has some corner case where it's playable (finishing your opponent out of nowhere can't be irrelevant), but mostly it's just meant to be a bad card. Was it worth making it a flash aura rather than an instant? Was it worth using 1R: +2/+0 instead of R: +1/+0?

Torch Fiend makes me feel better about the glut of 2/1s we've had at various points in M13 design. It's just such an iconic red size.

There is an argument that Wrack with Madness shouldn't be red. This exact effect has been done before in black (Kiku's Shadow—where your own shadow is turned against you) and in white (Repentance—where it's punishment for being aggressive rather than defensive). The madness flavor works reasonably well in red, but should red be able to kill arbitrarily large creatures? As a rule, red kills through burn and is thus limited to smaller creatures where white and black can usually kill regardless of size. Rules are made to be broken, arguably, and perhaps Wrack with Madness and Into the Maw of Hell are an intentional deviation. The logic might be that Innistrad is an even more dangerous plane than we usually visit.

For all the card advantage that the Esper colors have, it's nice to red with a bunch of aggressive cards and the trickiness to get through a wall of bockers, helping to level out the format and make sure that each player has at least some access to her preferred play style.


  1. I think the best argument for Wrack with Madness's effect landing (and, ostensibly, staying) in red is a comparison to the About Face effect.

    Are you sure Increasing Vengeance is strictly better than Reverberate?

    The fact that Ransacker, unlike Vandal, gives you the *choice* of destroying an artifact, seems against the flavor to me.

    I think the pivotal thing with Flanking Cougar was that it *didn't* have the ability itself. The idea being that it could make flank around blockers itself, or provide a distraction to aid another creature, but that it chose a single creature on attacking. Maybe that was too weak, especially in the face of Pyreheart Wolf? But certainly clean in its own right.

    1. Right. Increasing Vengeance is not strictly better than Reverberate because it can't target opponent's spell. Mostly better / mostly much better, yes.

      Hmm, good point about Ransacker. I had noticed the 'may' but didn't think how wrong it is compared to Manic Vandal. I suppose one could argue you know when Vandal's going to break stuff but not when Ransacker is, but I agree. You should have /less/ control over your werewolves, not more.

      For context, Flanking Cougar is the name (and image) of the card Pasteur submitted which only made another creature harder to block, not itself. I melded it with the primary concept from our Chasm Drake cycle for presentation here, but that does ruin the flavor.

  2. The relevance of being able to copy an opponent's spells depends greatly on the format you're playing. In Commander, for example, it's common to use Fork effects to piggyback on someone else's giant blowout spell for yourself. "Storm Herd? Don't mind if I do!" The pinnacle would probably have to be Wild Ricochet targeting Time Stretch. Oh, it's just dirty.

    Not that targeting only your own spells is *bad*. You're likely to have your own big blowouts, too, that you wouldn't mind A) making even bigger and blowout-ier, or B) keeping a copy spell around for in case someone decides to use countermagic.

    1. I also happen to be part of the crowd that doesn't mind seeing Dragons here. They don't *strictly* belong in the Gothic Horror stable of tropes, but neither do the black zombies. Frankenstein's Monster was a thing, but the shambling, rotting horde of undead is something that didn't emerge in popular culture until more recently. They're also a concession to the desires of the masses at the expense of remaining true to the specific genre. If you're going to be a purist about this sort of thing, you should be complaining about Moan of the Unhallowed just as much as Moonveil Dragon.

    2. I agree - I love a Reverberate on someone else's spell. Increasing Vengeance is a thing to put in a combo deck or some odd big-spells deck, whereas Reverberate (or better, Wild Ricochet) is a thing to throw into any EDH deck that can run it because it's unpredictably fun. Johnny vs Timmy, I guess, and I'm somewhat surprised that I find myself coming down on the Timmy side this time.