Friday 6 July 2012

More Reviews: A Cube Black

(This selection of review posts I will continue to add to as more cards get returned to the cube that were not in my original list and consequently not on my first set of comprehensive reviews. Those reviews are large enough and ordered enough that it is best to leave them alone. I will also re-review new cards that become cube mainstays once they have settled in as it were. My preview of the new set releases misses aspects of the card which experience will fill in. For some cards it is quickly obvious how wrong I am and where, typically this is for the most played and most powerful new cards, primarily as they are seeing lots more play than the more marginal ones. Explore and Harmonize have been around for a long enough time, even with only mild playtime for me to give a fair review of the card. Wolfir Silverheart is a rare example of a card so powerful it is getting lots of play and is very clear to see its strengths and where it fits in. The Wolfir Avenger is a card that will be a lot longer in getting to a point I am happy to give a final review to even though it was added at the same time as Silverheart. It sees less play and is more a more subtle card, it is also more similar to other cards in the cube and so runs the risk of being reviewed on the merits and failings of those cards rather than its own. Anyway, all this is simply to say, watch this space as I will be continually adding reviews to this post.)

Phyrexian ArenaPhyrexian Arena 2.0

A solid spell with a history of popping in and out of the cube. Black has lots of ways to pay life for cards and Arena is very middle of the road with few drawbacks compared to the others but also having nothing to make it the best in some respect. It is a very slow card advantage spell that costs you lots of tempo to use, both as it puts you on a slow clock itself and as it is a three mana sorcery with no immediate board impact. It is easier to cast than Necropotence and allows you to keep your normal draw however takes much longer to recover the loss of tempo from casting it due to the slow trickle of new cards. Typically only played in control and midrange decks which cannot easily risk the more powerful Necropotence and Dark Confidant. It is also rare to find it in a BU deck as the card draw options blue has, although somewhat dissimilar, are safer and better. It is the kind of card I play because I have a hole in my deck rather than I card I actively want to include, it is a clunky necessity sometimes and although I am not thrilled to be playing it I often find I am very glad when I resolve it.

ReanimateReanimate 3.0

I have had the reanimate trilogy of this, Exhume and Entomb in my A cube since I first made it and only just took them out for the first time just before starting this blog. The reanimate deck is one of the easiest, most diverse and reliable combo decks that the cube can support. There is good redundancy in the effects, some very spicy targets to bring back and a lot of support from cards that would be found in the cube regardless of the archetype such as Frantic Search. Reanimate is narrow in that it is really only much good in combo decks however the power and versatility of that archetype is sufficient to allow Reanimate a high rating. I took the cards out primarily to keep things fresh although with the prevalence of creature based decks there was always lots of bounce and removal to ensure reanimator decks had a really hard time of things. Interesting new fatties like Griselbrand and red opening up with Faithless Looting demanded the hasty return of the core trilogy. Since its return it has proved to be one of the most resilient combo decks and has simply adjusted to cope better with removal by using cards like Myr Battlesphere to gain value through removal, Goblin Welder and Recurring Nightmare to allow repeat reanimations and Spellskite to protect the threats. The life cost can make late game use awkward but the bargain cost of one makes up for this comfortably allowing for abusively quick use and making it the best of the reanimation options. It is easy to get dorks in the bin, and most dorks at one mana are pretty good value which is quite a good way to appreciate the strength of this card in a more isolated sense.

Exhume 2.8

The next best thing to Reanimate and often more desirable due to no life cost. Two mana is a lot more than one but is still really rather cheap and still just costs one black mana. It is easier to go off turn one with Reanimate than Exhume but not that much easier, and for the more consistent turn two use Exhume is generally just better. Exhume is not exclusive in the two slot for reanimation and has to compete with Animate Dead, Death (as in half of Life) and Dance of the Dead. Death is just a strictly worse versions of Reanimate and both the enchantment effects are much easier to disrupt than the sorcery versions. Being able to target other graveyards is cool and quirky but barely ever relevant and not worth consideration for inclusion in this archetype. Sometimes Exhume can be awkward because it allows them to recur a guy which happens to be bad for you but this is a late game occurrence and you shouldn't be winning those games much anyway. It is better to increase your consistency in going off than covering for the late game in a combo deck such as reanimator. The majority of the time they get back nothing and when they do it is largely irrelevant. Reanimate and Exhume have been a happy pair in many formats and remain so in the cube.

Entomb 2.5

If cards like Careful Study are the draw spells of reanimate and other graveyard based decks then Entomb is the Demonic Tutor of them. Certainly it is a narrow card but the cost is spot on allowing for great consistency, redundancy and options in those kinds of deck. They would function without it but would be significantly worse. A big bonus to Entomb is that it is one of the only cheap, good black ways to put things in the bin and allows you to go off really early with things like Dark Ritual. I rate it lower than the reanimate effects as it is relatively ineffective without them. Most other graveyard based decks want to be getting maximum value out of their engine and so use things like Survival of the Fittest and Gifts Ungiven to fill up the yard. Speed is not so essential for those decks, when it is then Entomb is the number one card. The card would still see play as a sorcery but it is a nice little bonus none the less allowing you to hide your play till the last minute or await information for the best route to victory. A last pick card in drafts that don't have a reanimator player but one of the worthy few I think.

Innocent BloodInnocent Blood 2.0

I may have mentioned that I had been unhappy with both Chainer's Edic and Diabolic Edict in the cube but felt like black should have access to that kind of removal as it gets around shroud, hexproof and indestructible which are all very powerful in the cube. I struggled to chose between the two as both instant and flashback have their advantages. The Edict effect is played but not with great frequency and so does not warrant two slots thus forcing the issue on whether flashback or instant was superior. I have managed to chicken out of making that call by having neither and using Innocent Blood in that role instead. A mana off the cost is definitely better than instant or flashback in this case and so the question becomes "is the symmetrical nature of the card worth halving the cost for?" So far in testing the answer is a comfortable yes. Black has little ramp and so mana saving really helps the deck in the key early stages of the game, typically black is a clunky colour and effective cheap removal smooths things out effectively for it. In addition to this black has lots of ways to make use of sacrificing its own dorks should it have them, Bloodghast will come back again, Black Cat will trigger and Geralfs Messengers will grow. Black even wants its own things dead sometimes as they are starting to hurt too much such as Dark Confidant or Abyssal Persecutor. The best thing about Innocent Blood however is how much it helps black when it is on the draw. Black has many powerful one drop spells like Inquisition of Kozilek however these lose much of their tempo disruption prowess on the draw. Games where you can take thier turn one Bird of Paradise or Goblin Guide as you are on the play are easy wins compared to the loss they can become if the same exact draws are used but the play order is changed. Certainly black has Disfigure and Tragic Slip to perform this role but they tend to scale less well as the game progresses and perform a slightly different role as removal cards. Innocent Blood is very much a control card however it does see some play in cheaper more creature based black decks such as Necropotence. This makes it slightly narrower than either Edict but is sufficiently better in its role that is sees more play than both Edicts ever did.

Tragic SlipTragic Slip 3.7

The more I have played with and against this the more I am appreciating its power and subtlety. At first I overlooked it and gave it an atrocious C cube spot but my subconscious being a better judge than I had it thrown it in to test with all the other marginal cards from that set. Quickly I realised it was not only comparable to Disfigure but generally outperforming it too. I would now go so far as to say it was the 4th best spot creature removal spell in the cube after the obvious white Path and Plow and the versatile Lightening Bolt, which purely as creature kill is inferior to Slip, apparently planeswalkers have a greater sense of balance. As you might have noticed the theme of good removal is being a one mana instant. The efficiency calculations make it quite easy to see why one mana is so good compared to two or three. Convenience, security and trickery are why instant speed is of such high value. Brimstone Volley was a powerful morbid card that I eventually cut for being too unreliable on the morbid trigger. A lot of this was down to the cost being so much more than with Tragic Slip. Assume that on average it costs one mana to generate a morbid trigger your Volley is starting to look a lot less exciting at 5 damage for 4 mana while slip is still looking like blacks best removal spell. Volley was therefore only good when you happened upon a convenient free morbid trigger while Tragic Slip is well worth engineering the trigger for as well as much easier to do so with its lower cost. So why is it better than Disfigure or even the consistent Doom Blade? Compared to Disfigure it is the scaling of the card that really makes it shine. Disfigure is slightly better than Tragic Slip on turns one to three, most significantly on turn two (there are not that many one drops Disfigure hits and Slip doesn't and by turn three morbid is getting very likely). Slip is far from useless in these early stages of the game and can just as easily slot into your curve and have a huge effect on the game. With morbid triggered which generally just gets easier as the game goes on Slip is a really serious removal spell and kills basically every monster out there (excluding those dorks that no spot removal can target which hardly marks it down when comparing it with other spot removal). Black is the easiest colour in which to trigger morbid with lots of removal and ways to usefully sacrifice your own critters too. Late game therefore it does not suffer what all other black removal seems to do, either fail to cope with fat men like Smother and Disfigure or fail to hit certain targets like other black dudes or artifacts. Slip has no self imposed restrictions and is cheaper to boot than Doom Blade or Go for the Throat and while it may not exile cards (like the more apt comparisons of Path and Plow) it does deal with regenerate and indestructible things aptly. Fulfilling the role of Disfigure is very much the secondary role of this card and should be thought of more like including a Path to Exile in your deck, albeit a slightly more awkward one. It is very nice when you do use it early but you are more than happy to be holding it to the later game. The real test will now be to see if Disfigure retains its cube slot in light of this card which can substitute in for its role but perform better ones too.

Phyrexian ObliteratorPhyrexian Obliterator 3.0

This is one of those cards that makes you recoil when you first read it, in shock of the extreme power of the card. You are caught out in assuming it is some new take on the old favourite Nagator but no, the extreme drawback is reversed! The first few dorks that come to mind with a drawback such as Accursed Centaur and Goblin Guide (that probably says more about my outlook on magic than anything else, always with the 2 power one mana critters...) would both be highly playable for one extra mana if the drawbacks were reversed. It was always a no-brainer than Obliterator would be a joke if ever resolved however I was unsure how frequently it would be called upon to feature in decks. Black has always had the highest power all black casting cost cards in Sinkhole, Hymn to Tourach and Necropotence but quad black is really taking it to the next level. It is basically a gold card in how restrictive it is in that you can only ever play it in a mono black deck, or at least a deck with no more than one land that doesn't tap for black. Were mono black decks going to consistently want the Obliterator was my concern, is it up to the power level of Bloodbraid Elf, Knight of the Reliquary etc which are close to auto include dorks when you are in those colours (and not doing some silly combo type deck). Another concern I had was that Obliterator is just a dork and offers no added value when bounced back into you hand or greeted into play with spot removal. He is quite a top end dork as well and will make you wince when flipped with Dark Confidant etc. Ultimately it was Geralf's Messengers that sealed the deal on Obliterator getting the A cube slot however I think in hindsight this just sped up the inevitable as he is well worthy. The influx of high power high black requiring spells complemented each other well. So what is it about Obliterator that makes him good other than having lots of stats for not much mana and an extreme penalty for hurting the thing? Well, obviously it is just that, the good dork size with added extras. It how those extras impact the game and how they can be made use of effectively in decks. He is great in control and agro for a start as you cannot really ever attack into him or ever block him without putting yourself stupidly far behind. On both occasions you are basically about to go all in on some alpha strike or have somehow managed to get very far ahead in the game in other ways. As a win condition he is a reliable 4 turn clock and as a wall he holds off all non evasion monsters. For 4 mana you cannnot get a better dual purpose control card. You also can't really do better for a stand alone agro dork for the cost either. I previously mentioned a weakness of the card is that it gains you little against spot removal however we are overlooking the fact that he is basically immune to red removal (unless of course they feel they can win from having no permanents in play), has five toughness and is black making him nearly immune to black removal too. In many ways the card is like Baneslayer Angel, a threat that almost always needs to be dealt with in order to stand a chance of winning the game. Another nice thing about Obliterator is that it doesn't compete with Abyssal Persecutor for slots in decks. When you only have space for one it is clear which is the better choice and quite often you want both. Having redundancy on significantly over powered four drops is a nice thing for a deck to be able to rely on. 3 might seem like a low rating but it is mostly due to the cards restriction to few deck types (on a side note I have seen it used well in BG Recurring Nightmare/Birthing Pod Decks which have both discard outlets and ways to cheat him into play so that he is never dead). If Obliterator was cost a 2BB he would easily command a 4.0 rating.

Hatred 1.5

Often dead and when it is not it is still a very good way to let your opponent have a free win. The scary drawbacks of Hatred aside, when it works you win, right there and then, game over. It is not all that fun or all that clever but it is fairly well balanced as game winners go. Five mana would be a bit much for this kind of effect in most other colours as it obviously only goes in cheap agro creature decks however black is much more likely to pack moxes as it can easily regain the lost card advantage and it also has Lake of the Dead and Dark Ritual to power up the mana. The old turn one dork, turn two Hatred the dork and kill you play is quite a reasonable threat in cube which is the redeeming feature of Hatred. It may end some games abruptly and tediously however it adds to the game be being a potential threat even when it is not there and gives you interesting choices when you have it. Do you risk all for the easy turn two win or is your hand and maatchup good enough to play this out normally with what would be a close to dead card in hand? It is only really playable in mono black agro decks and is not played by them more often than it is which combined with its high risk gets it a rather low rating.

Raven's CrimeRaven's Crime 2.5

As a one mana discard spells this rarely gets a look in with so many much better options for black. Giving them the choice of what to discard typically means you are wasting you whole first turn and all the resources you get from it to, at best, disrupt their fourth turn a little. As a Mind Twist however Raven's Crime starts to look a bit more interesting. While it requires lands to fuel it there are lots of decks which easily accrue large quantities of disposable lands one of which is any deck with Necropotence. It is quite easy to get to a stage where you can empty an opponents hand then lock them down to either playing each draw immediately or losing it. The Crime has found itself a selection of various homes where it is taking the place of clunkier one hit wonder cards like Mind Twist which greatly surprised me. The control, longevity and mana efficiency of Raven's Crime seem to combine to make it more powerful at much the same job in a number of decks. One of this is simply mono black agro where you have little use for excess lands. In these decks you less often lock them out of one shot their hand as you have less reliable ways of getting loads of cards but you do get tremendous value from it. I mentioned Necro decks (mono black agro usually also has Necropotence but it is not the same archetype as a Necro deck) where it is a powerful control card and dominates other control decks and severely damages combo decks. It is very easy with the black tutors to set up a Necro Crime lock against a deck applying little pressure. The final home I have seen for the Crime is in Life from the Loam decks which are typically blue and green but can end up with any selection and number of colours. In these decks the heavy black requirement makes it a bit slower to abuse however this is offset somewhat by the synergy it has with Gifts Ungiven and Life from the Loam. A surprisingly good little card although not to get confused with the likes of Thoughtseize or Duress as it plays a completely different role.

GravecrawlerGravecrawler 3.8

Although I typically try and wait a couple of years after adding a new card to the cube before reviewing it properly so as to really have seen it in most situations thus affording an informed assessment of the card this black one drop has become such a consistent mainstay that it has already seen more play than many older cards. Before Deathrite Shaman this was the clear best black one drop dork out there and now they perform such different roles that a direct comparison is not easy. Shaman is a utility, ramp and disruption dork while Gravecrawler is a persistent agro dork or an engine mechanism. They are at least both nice interesting cards as you need to build with them in mind to make the most out of them. Gravecrawler is playable as a fairly weak one drop beater however it gets steadily better with each card you add that has some synergy with it. This may seem restrictive however Gravecrawler is easy to by synergic with as sacrifice and discard effects and the zombie creature type all do so and all of which are relatively abundant in black. With just a few other zombies in an agro deck Gravecrawler goes from being weak to being the best of your one drop beaters. It shares a number of it's synergies with Bloodghast which also makes the inclusion of cards like Skullclamp or Smallpox etc significantly more powerful and reliable. Gravecrawler also has the decency to count as casting a spell which unlike the Bloodghast is a bonus for effect like extort and may be used as many times as you have the mana for which works especially well with Carrion Feeder. It is a very neat little package in all, it offers tempo and card advantage for a lovely cost and has a wide array of cards that work well with it increasing its power levels. It goes in three or four different archetypes although they are unsurprisingly quite similar ones. It is a mainstay in mono black agro and frequently crops up in Pox and Necro decks. He also sees play Bx cheap agro decks (although Pox can be Bw or Bg I much prefer the mono version) that just happen to have a couple of zombies in them but these are usually just a mash of two existing yet compatible archetypes such as red deck wins plus mono black agro or white weenie plus mono black agro etc. The final home I think I have seen Gravecrawler performing well in is BG Recurring Nightmare decks, typically those that are also trying to apply some pressure rather than the control orientated ones. It is surprising how many of the good gold BG dorks are also zombies which helps to make the Crawler a reliable reusable sacrificial dork for the Nightmare and any other sac effects you may have in the list. Black was underpowered and rather shallow in the cube for quite some time and its dorks were typically behind most other colours in their power. Gravecrawler is one in a handful of top quality new black cards that have really helped to bring black back to parity with the other colours.

Mesmeric FiendMesmeric Fiend 1.0

If you look at this as a discard dork it is very weak and it is also very weak if looked at as a utility value dork. On both accounts I would rather have the humble Ravenous Rats who at least do something permanent and can get two for ones. You don't want to be using the Fiend with Recurring Nightmare or any other kind of value getting sacrifice outlet as it removes almost all of the value of card when it dies. You also don't really want to be playing this in your agro deck as it has so little impact on the board, at best it beats for a pathetic amount but usually just sits there doing nothing scared of all the other creatures that have one or more power. The only time I ever think that Mesmeric Fiend is a good main deck card is when you want to be stalling and can afford to waste cards on doing so. It is fantastic for coming down and really disrupting the curving of your opponent however it rarely gets you any further value, even if they are forced to waste a whole card killing it there is a good chance it cost less than the Fiend or does other things as well as killing it. You may go one for one with it in other words but not all one for ones are of the same value and those with Fiend usually work out in favour of the other player. There are not that many decks that really just want to stall a bit and fewer still that would elect for Fiend over a discard spell. Some combo decks or engine decks are keen to stall but only when they have use of a dork as well or a real aversion to losing life or not being able to hit a specific permanent type do they chose Fiend over alternatives. In all quite a specific narrow card that has few homes and is very easy to misuse.

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