Sunday 15 January 2012

Reviews: The A cube black creatures

TombstalkerTombstalker 1.0

Abyssal Persecutor pretty much ruined this demons day, before that Baneslayer Angel had been ruining his last few years... The stalker is quite hard to drop early and has a lot of anti-synergy with black cards, many of which want to be in the graveyard, others of which get you things back from the yard. Taking 8 from a confidant for this card also detracts from his appeal. I like the delve mechanic despite having poor synergy with most cards. I have another sentimental foible in that I like to represent as many different mechanics in the cube as possible. While I accept this is a folly notion that would wreak a cube if imposed the idea still lingers enough to have this card still in the A-cube when really it should already be collecting dust in a box.

Grave Titan

Grave Titan 3.8ish

While comparable to inferno titan in power levels the grave dork gets a lower rating as black has more things it wants to spend 6 mana on than red does in the cube. The reason for these titans being the two best is that they can come down and deal with multiple threats from the opponent. Green is lucky to deal with any while blue and white deal with one at best usually. Grave Titan is like a deranged hermit or siege-gang that doesn't have a feeble body and continues to pump out men. Grave Titan tends to be the hardest to kill of the cycle and offers the most value if instantly killed. With access to dark ritual and lake of the dead the grave titan is often first into play of the titans. Rock decks using birthing pod also favour this guy as the 6 mana link in the chain. While only comparable really in mana cost and in being a threat Grave Titan has often taken the slot in a deck that would previously have gone to Sorin Markov.

ShriekmawShriekmaw 3.0 

This is my personal favourite of all the Nekretaal style monsters black has to offer. Skinrender is the next in line, offering more targeting potential, a bigger body and less mana to flop out. Shriekmaw trumps these advantages by offering great flexibility in mana requirements. Not having a guy but being able to cast a removal spell is better than doing nothing, particularly as the slot is regarded as a slot for removal rather than for a threat. Evoke is a great mechanic offering great versatility in the card and smoothing out mana curves. It also has good synergy with Recurring Nightmare as it puts itself in the yard when evoked. Fear is of more use than an extra toughness and while the limitation of viable targets is sometimes annoying the ability to kill monsters of all sizes is most welcome.

Bloodgift Demon
Bloodgift Demon 2.5

I have so far been impressed with this card although not had much chance to really play with it having not added it along with the initial surge of new Innistrad cards. While neither as good as a dark confidant or a consecrated sphynx at either end of the spectrum it is a perfectly acceptable medium between the two fitting in both aggressive and control decks. Unlike most black life-for-cards effects this can be turned off to stop it killing you if needs be although quite a dire solution. The same idea can be used to deal 6 damage a turn rather than 5, but again this has to be really worth it. The best deck type found so far for this guy is a rock deck but his all-round qualities do allow for inclusion in most decks with black. A few more impressive showings and I am liable to confirm this guys slot and remove the Tombstalker despite having quite different applications.

Braids, Cabal Minion
Braids, Cabal Minion 2.5

Braids offers redundancy and synergy to mana denial decks. If your deck in cube is not doing a specific thing it needs to be really good at stopping your opponent doing things. Without counterspells it gets quite hard to cover all the different options of what could be beating you. Mana denial is one of the few ways this can be achieved and so sees much play in many incarnations of all colours. Discard in black can slow down an opponent doing a thing but is still highly vulnerable to the top deck, meaning Braids is very welcome in black. Although all the decks she features in will have to a certain extent a mana denail theme these decks are of many colour combinations and styles and so Braids is not as narrow as she might appear. Frequently found with smallpox, deathcloud, bloodghast, dark confidant, mana crypt, smokestack, solemn simulacrum, skull clamp and soon to be gravecrawler too. Braids tends to have synergy with good cards and therefore ends up in decks with high average power making her perform favourably. Much better without Karakas in the format she can work effectively in both aggressive decks and control decks. Being a 4 mana 2/2 is a big investment for a vulnerable low impact body which brings down her power considerably. The other main reason she only scores a 2.5 rating is that she is far weaker against aggressive decks. Most of the time you are happy to throw her down and chump or trade with a much cheaper guy just to prolong the game against agro which is not ideal if she is a relevant part of your strategy.

Abyssal Persecutor
Abyssal Persecutor 3.0

There are very few dorks in the cube that are just big undercosted beaters with no added value or card advantage. This is one of the very few along with tarmogoyf (and sort of baneslayer, although the life gain is more utility) which should speak volumes about his power. His drawback is pretty irrelevant, particularly for a black card due to the abundance of easy ways to sacrifice him. While you should always have a few cards that can kill this in your deck that will rarely be an issue. Your opponent generally has to assume you can deal with him yourself at some stage and will kill it for you if they can, often at great expense. The flying is really handy, the trample is a small bonus too and is relevant more often than the drawback. The persecutor sees play in most non-combo archetypes that contain black although never an auto include card in any archetype. This versatile man is often exactly what a deck needs to fill it out, most commonly in rock decks where lack of flying monsters is a real weakness.

Skinrender 2.5

The skinrender offers the best and most reliable tempo swing out of all the 187 guys (is that reference too old now? things like nekretaal anyways). He has a decent body and is quite cheap compared to the other options. The main upside to this guy is that he hits any target, and even if not outright killing it certainly making it far less scary. Black removal tends to be annoyingly bad at hitting the odd thing so the skinrender is always a card you can comfortably use to fill a removal slot in your deck knowing it will not be dead. Pretty good all round card and a very good card to partner with shriekmaw to provide most options. While I personally prefer the shriekmaw to skinredner and think it is the better card these see roughly equal play. The choice to play either card is generally determined more by your match ups and mana curve than anything else. Being a zombie just got better too!

Vampire Nighthawk
Vampire Nighthawk 3.8

I really didn't expect this guy to be any good at all but since his arrival he has consistently impressed and sent Hypnotic Specter to watch how it is done from the sidelines. Nighthawk is good in the cube for all the reasons he was in limited and more. There are not many fliers in cube, particularly cheap ones and so Nighthawk gives you control of the skies. Black also has limited good ways to gain life so that it may spend it again on more cards and the Nighthawk is an ongoing source of life that is cheap and has other valid uses. Defensively great for being able to block and kill almost everything and offensively useful offering evasion, good scaling with equipment and powerful tempo swings. Nighthawk is a complete all round monster and is one of the very few guys costing more than one mana in the cube that has no added card advantage effects having sufficient merit on their body alone. This ranks him up with Tarmogoyf and Baneslayer Angel and is often referred to as the mini Baneslayer. As with Arc Trail the card does not appear as powerful to look at as they appear in game, good certainly but not immense yet they seem to have just the perfect blend of effects, size, cost etc to make them really stand out. I very nearly rated this vampire higher but suspected that was more down to my affection for the humble card having done so well.

Priest of GixPriest of Gix 1.0

While a free 2/1 is great you have to have three mana to start with and it is so weak it basically costs you a card. Savannah Lion is only good when you cast it having not left any previous mana in the game go unspent. This generally means the first couple of turns which is why the Priest is so much weaker, he cannot be made in the turns you most want his body in play. He offers a slight tempo boost in the mid game unless you have a Dark Ritual or Mana Crypt start, the latter of which is risky in black with high life penalties and low colourless mana requirements in black. The Priest does also help to fix black mana but cannot be relied upon to do so and does not allow you to construct more interesting decks as a result. The red monsters that are similar to this guy are pretty unplayable as red cannot afford the card disadvantage for such a minor tempo gain. Black is much more able to afford the lower card quality and much keener to gain tempo. All in all a pretty underwhelming card that only finds a home in very aggressive black decks that also have numerous card advantage spells like Necropotence, Yawgmoth's Will and Dark Confidant. The two reasons this has not yet been cut are due to a lack of powerful aggressive monsters in black and the really powerful openers he can give when you play him on turn one somehow and then usefully spend all the mana.

Phyrexian RagerPhyrexian Rager 2.0

I love this little fellow but the power creep has made him look rather rusty. Sea Gate Oracle is a vastly superior card. The only small perk this offers over the newer blue option is the ability to get slightly more aggressive with the card. Grey Ogres are not the best offensive monsters and don't get all that much done. In black the cost of the life is a bit of a pain as it often means a card less later on in the game and makes it a less appealing pure control card despite that being a reasonable home for him. He left the cube for a while and returned shortly after Birthing Pod as he has great synergy with the card and is pretty playable in general. I would love to see a 2/1 version of this guy for 1B  or even a just a 3/2 for 2B, such cards would easily get a 3.5 and a 3.0 rating respectively and would see lots more play. Rager is great filler and sees most play in black pox decks, Birthing Pod decks or BW control decks.

Hypnotic Specter
Hypnotic Specter 2.0

I think it is fair to say that this was the first actually good creature printed in magic that wasn't just to tap for mana. It was a long wait before anything better was to come along and not until Zendikar that Hyppy stopped seeing frequent play in the cube. Any slow deck that cannot deal with it are basically dead to it after a few hits. If you flop it down fast with something like Dark Ritual then get a hit or two in against any deck you can invoke the free win that Hymn to Tourach and Strip Mine can both offer. It is almost entirely the fact that the discard is random that makes the card so scary to face and so potentially deadly. Oddly it is Vampire Nighthawk that always seems to take the slot of this guy in decks. Beyond costing the same for 2 power fliers they are not very similar cards. Specter does not offer the same tempo swing as he is little use in combat and is much more vulnerable. Specter can also be just a flying 2/2 late game while Nighthawk is always strong and while Nighthawk offers no direct card advantage the 2 life per turn can fairly easily be concerted into cards with many of the various black card draw mechanisms. While Hyppy is still able to take games and scare people it is far more common to play him, get a hit or two in while rapidly losing tempo only to then have to hold him back as a chump blocker. Any card advantage you have gained in such situations is likely not worth the loss in tempo it cost to get. Hyppy is too small and slow to be all round good, while he is weak against the cheap creature decks he is never dead and is still worthy of deck slots for his strengths against control.

Vampire HexmageVampire Hexmage 3.5

When you absolutely positively have to kill a planeswalker, accept no substitute. There are precious few ways to deal with a planeswalker, especially if you fall behind on the board. A few there mana generic removal spells will do the job but none are quite as good at is as the little vampire. Being double black you cannot really fit her into decks splashing black although I am sure you often would if she cost 1B instead. While killing planeswalkers is her main function the ability to remove counters from things is handy in other match ups from subtle effects like colour screwing someone by turning off a vivid land or more pronounced such a resetting a level up creature or negating a Tanglewire. Most decks have a few things with counters or you can use it on your own things to reset undying and persist effects. On top of all this utility and trickery through the instant speed effect of removing counters she can also attack and block! A 2/1 for two is fine either in aggressive decks or control ones and the bonus first strike actually makes her pretty significant in combat, more so defensively. The first strike also helps you to get some damage out of her before you sacrifice her for the effect. Due to the power of planeswalkers, the fact she is a reasonable body for the mana and offers good utility outside of her main roles she is an auto include in most heavy black decks.

Nezumi GraverobberNezumi Graverobber 1.0

The lack of first strike or any utility without paying further mana makes the Graverobber pretty weak. Compared to a lot of two drops you could play he will likely be losing you tempo. Exiling cards in graveyards is a useful effect but at 2 mana you will be losing even more tempo to do this. Once flipped he is still pretty vulnerable and costly to make use of. With appropriate targets the game will be over fast but often you will not be using him to reanimate things until the late game. He is much better in sealed and draft cubes where decks are slower and less coherent but still not exactly thrilling. While he can win games almost on his own this is infrequent and not worth the trade off where he is very underpowered and achieves little. Primarily he is played as a hoser against decks like reanimator and survival decks. In this instances a Withered Wretch is likely a far better alternative as it is better at that specific role. Overall the card feels a little like a level up monster that allows you to use unspent mana to turn an early drop into a late game threat. The problem is that the early body is rarely something a deck wants unlike cards like Lighthouse Chronologist.

BloodghastBloodghast 3.5

I am a huge fan of this card as it works so well with many other black cards. It is not quite as powerful as the newer Gravecrawler however it is much easier to fit into a deck as land is a much more reliable and useful type than zombie...  Bloodghast is fantastic with Skullclamp, Smallpox, Death Cloud, Carrion Feeder, Liliana of the Veil, Smokestack, Braids Cabal Minion, Cabal Therapy and many other lesser cards. It is both a persistent threat and a card that facilitates card advantage engines all in one. The lack of ability to block is annoying but would make the card completely unfair and is a very sensible design inclusion. The haste effect is minor but nice and convenient when active. It is possible to make use of the Ghast without ever having to pay mana for it which means it is splashable in off colour decks with dedicated amounts of discard outlets. Unless you have a very aggressive deck however you need cards to abuse the recursion as permanantly having a 2/1 that can't block is often pretty irrelevant in games.

Dark ConfidantDark Confidant 4.4

Many say this is the best creature ever printed and he is very close. In some decks he is pretty perfect however he is a bit dangerous to be considered for any archetype and makes certain cards prohibitively dangerous such as Tomb Stalker. I think Snapcaster Mage is probably the slightly more rounded card and so takes the top spot for creatures but I am struggling to think of other creatures that are more powerful. Confidants other drawback is that he is vulnerable and offers little value when instantly dealt with. Most of the good cheap creatures offer returns even when they are short lived or are powerful in combat which this is neither. Most decks that have low average mana costs, expect to be on higher life totals due to being very agro or ones that can reliably manipulate the top of their libraries will auto include the confidant due to his ridiculous power level. If Confidant sticks in play for a couple of turns things start to get pretty out of hand much like planeswalkers only cheaper. Frequently this guy wont get involved in combat as it will get killed by anything and shut down your stream of cards but this is also totally fine too. Phyrexian Arena is a fine card and at one less mana it is even finer.

CarnophageCarnophage 2.0

I love me a 2 power dork for 1 and this is one of the classics. It comes with a healthy toughness and a desirable creature type (as far as black creature types go) and is not a huge risk card like many black cards that have life costs. Sadly the card does suffer from being reasonably low value as well as low power level. Against aggressive decks where you are racing you have kindof got a 1/2 in terms of the tempo and when you are not racing your guy loses you lots of tempo if you want to be able to block with it. Even when you are not afraid of losing tempo nor that you will be killed from having paid too much life because you are up against a control deck or something the life cost is still tedious as you want that life to buy cards with later in the game rather than just getting in that extra point of damage. Black is one of the shallowest colours with a sharp fall off in power level after the initial good cards. Carnophage may not be the best one mana agro dork but he is plenty good enough for black which cannot be too choosey. As such he is a staple of basically every single agro black deck.

Vampire Lacerator
Vampire Lacerator 1.5

A twist on the Carnophage but sadly a downgrade. Generally you will pay a little less life for the Vampire than you will Carnophage as agro decks that play these cards will get life totals low. Even so the lack of being able to chose means that it is worse on this factor alone. When you need the life you don't need your opponent to be on any life total in order to get the result you need. Only one life point in every 20 mean anything at all and so paying more life for Carnophage is not relevant as you can always avoid paying the one that matters. Doubling up on effects like this as well starts to get pretty uncomfortable. The other main thing Carnophage has over this dork is the creature type which mattered much less before Gravecrawler showed up. Lacerator is  now always the last pick one drop and often left on the bench in favour of other things. He is the Savannah Lion of black (without all the cool old schoolness) being played only when you really need to bolster your low drops and/or creature counts.

Carrion Feeder
Carrion Feeder 3.5 

This guy is so underrated by most people yet in my experience is a cornerstone of black aggressive strategies. It is the Wirewood Symbiote of Elves or the Skirk Prospector of Goblins. Black lacks quality monsters, has lots of risky ones and struggles with finding enough low drop dorks. Feeder might not be able to block but he doesn't deal you any pain and can turn off any monster that is starting to cause too much. Simply the ability to sacrifice creatures at will is underrated as it allows you to attack with lots of gribblies into things like Baneslayer without having them gain more than you deal or fizzle effects like Lightening Helix. Feeder works very well with undying on things like Geralf's Messengers or when this dies effects on cards like Black Cat. It is also very useful if you want to run the highly powerful Abyssal Persecutor. Many of blacks disposable creatures have 2 toughness making them hard to Skullclamp away. Feeder is also great to have out so you can set up the most brutal Living Death's. He is a zombie, which is what you want your dorks to be in black and he works wonderfully well with blacks two main agro engine dorks, those being Bloodghast and Gravecrawler. The Crawler in particular you can literally just spend one black mana to put a permanent +1/+1 counter on the Feeder making it a serious problem very quickly, with both you can just comfortably and efficiently grow your feeder as you need it or have the spare activations.

Disciple of the Vault
Disciple of the Vault 1.0

Well, he is one of the scariest one drops out there but fitting in precisely one deck rather ruins this guys chances of a high rating. A few convoluted combo decks can employ his as a finisher however these decks are usually bad and mean his only sensible home is of course the irksome affinity deck. He is one of the main threats that make affinity so tenacious and deadly and other than nice filler like Yawgmoth's Will is pretty much the sole reason to play black in affinity. In affinity it offers you some protection and added value when you are hit with mass removal, one of the few ways to keep affinity in check. It also works as a good surprise finisher when you have any sacrifice outlet. Similar in effect to Cranial plating although more awkward to cast most of the time despite being cheaper. Not too significant as an early drop it will occasionally nibble both in attacks and when you cycle through your Chromatic Stars etc. Pretty important card to support the archetype but painfully narrow both itself and in the cards it supports.

Diregraf GhoulDiregraf Ghoul 2.5

While coming into play tapped is quite a serious drawback for Geralf's Messengers this being a one drop makes it matter far less. Black has little ways to make things haste and so ultimately it equates to not being able to block for one turn. With one drop agro monsters there is not usually all that much to be blocking and if there was it isn't all that important. Only late game when you really need a chump is the ability a pain and in these situations you are generally already behind and well out of the stage of the game your cards are designed for. As a simple no frills one drop two power beater this is one of the best going, certainly blacks best. It is the perfect support card being a zombie, costing no life and only one mana.

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