I, For One, Welcome Our New Phyrexian Overlords

28 May

Forgive me if I’m shedding tears right now. Unlike many Magic players, I have nothing but the fondest memories for the original Mirrodin block. Maybe that’s because, back then, I was new and inexperienced and didn’t really pay attention to the tournament scene where Ravager Affinity decks were destroying everything in their path. But y’know… How’s the old adage go? You never forget your first? Well, Mirrodin was my first. It came out a few weeks before I started playing Magic. My first deck was made up of a bunch of Equipment and Affinity cards, and big splashy rare artifact creatures I found in the garbage. They looked like they had been left in someone’s pocket and run through a washing machine, but they were still readable… And my sleeves made them indistinguishable from all the other cards in my deck.

I just loved the whole flavor of the world, though, most of all. Sure, it was a world of metal that at times looked too pristine and leaped straight into the Uncanny Valley, but Wizards of the Coast found a way to make it work, and they did it without making it feel too futuristic. Putting Equipment in my creatures’ hands, knowing that killing the creature wouldn’t kill its Equipment, felt powerful – even if I wasn’t equipping one of the many Leonin and Auriok who got bonuses for it. Affinity cards like Broodstar and Assert Authority boggled my mind and made me wanna slap all my artifacts onto the table as fast as possible. Every color had its own way of interacting with artifacts, even if that meant just ruining all the other colors’ strategies by blowing their artifacts up.

But again, I was a new player. My experience was different. Equipment stuck around and became an evergreen mechanic, but Affinity? No chance in hell. Wizards decided early in the design process for the 7-years-later sequel – Scars of Mirrodin – not to revisit it, and head designer Mark Rosewater didn’t skirt around the reason why. A large portion of the Magic-playing community still remembers the tournament season that saw Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, Skullclamp, Æther Vial, and the six artifact lands banned from various formats. Affinity by itself was a strong but not overbearing mechanic, and indeed, none of the cards I just named have anything to do with it… except that they interacted with artifacts in such a monstrously powerful way that they meshed too well with Affinity and made the mechanic synonymous with broken combos. And so it was that Wizards decided to pre-emptively do a bit of damage control and pretend that Affinity never existed by excluding it from Scars.

The loss of Affinity, of course, was just the first of many changes to strike Mirrodin. Its flavor also became warped, with Goblins becoming more rodent-like, Vampires suddenly becoming a more prosperous race than Nim, and Elves not hating artifacts quite as much as I remember. And then there were all these Phyrexians everywhere… >.o How could that be? I thought Urza and company fended off the invasion and killed Yawgmoth a decade ago. And now Phyrexia is back? What happened?

I guess it’s pretty safe to say that I didn’t really care much for the flavor of Scars. While I do take Wizards’ designers at their word when they say they were planning on rebirthing the Phyrexians all along (there was a subtle mention of their primordial Oil in one of the original Mirrodin block’s tie-in novels), all these flavor changes just made me feel like I’d been robbed of my sense of nostalgia. And don’t get me started on the mechanics. The creatures were weak, the Imprint cards were uninspiring, and Equipment not named Infiltration Lens or Sword of Body and Mind weren’t worth playing.

And of course, there was poison. Ugggh… poison… >.<

Infect is a mechanic that, if you hate it, you really can blame on Mark Rosewater for once. Though his article on the subject was very tongue-in-cheek, Rosewater openly admitted that he fell in love with poison back when he was just a player and not a designer, and he’d been looking for the perfect opportunity to introduce it back into the game as a more viable alternate win condition. And I have to admit, the way he and the Scars design team handled poison was actually a lot better than the way Future Sight handled it. Gone were the days when creatures could deal both poison damage and regular damage at the same time. Wizards could now print poisonous beasties with more respectable battle stats.

Here’s the thing, though… Poison isn’t so much an alternate win condition as it is a shortcut to the primary win condition. In many situations, that Contagious Nim up there might as well be a 4/2, which is actually super-efficient for a creature that costs three mana and gives a resounding finger to any indestructible or regenerating creatures that get in its way. What’s worse, once you have poison counters, there’s no way to take them off. With regular damage, you could just gain life and pretend like you were never hurt, but to date, the only card in existence that removes poison counters is a really old card named Leeches, and in net, all it does is turn your poison counters into regular damage.

'Look, buddy, I know this doesn't exactly feel comfortable, but antibiotics haven't been invented yet.'

And just to add insult to injury, when the block’s designers wanted to convey the message that Mirrodin was losing the war, they took old cards that players like me would feel nostalgic about and reprinted them in the second set – Mirrodin Besieged – with Infect. Viridian Shaman? Blinkmoth Nexus? Darksteel Colossus? All of them were lost to the dark side.

I’m just grateful that Infect is such an insular mechanic, with very few ways to splash it into an otherwise normal aggro deck. But dying to poison counters just feels cheap, frustrating, demoralizing. Especially if you’ve ever been knocked out of a Draft by being on the business end of an Untamed Might/Tainted Strike combo.

All just as Wizards of the Coast planned. Losing to Phyrexian mechanics is supposed to make you feel like crap. It’s supposed to make you go, “Where did that come from, and how did I let it happen?” And playing with cards that abuse Infect, no matter how insular the mechanic really is, is supposed to make you feel like you’re playing on a whole stratosphere above your opponent.

The Scars of Mirrodin block’s conclusion introduces a brand new mechanic that adds a twist to that sucker-punch surprise factor that made Infect such a pain to play against, and puts the exclamation point on why I abandoned all hope of reclaiming any further feelings of nostalgia. It was never Wizards’ intention to make Mirrodin feel like Mirrodin. The plan was always to make Mirrodin feel like Phyrexia.

'Does this cracked porcelain armor make my ass look big?'

I thought Wizards was really grasping at straws when they decided it was okay to bleed Phyrexian influence into white back in Mirrodin Besieged. I mean, I guess I can understand the whole religious fundamentalism aspect of Phyrexia, what with their converting everyone they don’t kill over to their side, but poison didn’t feel very white, and anything else Phyrexian white cards did could have just as easily fit on the Mirran side.

But for mechanical reasons, they had a good reason for it. Welcome to New Phyrexia. Say hello to its special mana!

Okay, before everybody starts blathering over how a new free counterspell is going to break the game in half (it won’t; it’ll just break Legacy >.>), let me just say that I’ve already participated in three Limited events and two Constructed events involving New Phyrexia cards… And after the first few times you get caught off guard by an Apostle’s Blessing or a Dismember out of nowhere, you start to plan ahead for tricks involving Phyrexian mana. Yes, Draft decks play a little more like Standard decks, and Standard decks play a little more like Legacy decks, but the overall power level of the game doesn’t seem to have creeped that much. It’s not like these Phyrexian cards are going to become the new norm. It’s just a product of Wizards coming up with a weird thing to do in the third set of a block, like they always do.

Probably the most interesting change I’ve seen in the Standard metagame is that many players are exploring how many ways they can beat you with a single creature on the table and a metric crapton of support cards. You may already be aware of the infamous infinite combo (infinamous combo?) between Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin, which has its own deck built around it and has been not-so-subtly snuck into existing RUG Tempo and Pyromancer Ascension builds.

'You see, Mr. Anderson, the great thing about being me is that there are so many mes!'

Less common are the Mono-Green and Blue-Green Infect variants, both of which intend to get as much use as they can out of Glistener Elf – the game’s one and only 1-drop poison dude – and the “free” Mutagenic Growth. Testing in the Future Future League suggests that these kinds of decks will be the new stars of Standard in the waning months of Zendikar block’s life.

As for Limited? Well, let’s just say that having access to all five colors never looked so haphazard but worked so great. ^^;

Here’s what I played in my Sealed deck at prerelease (3 Scars, 3 New Phyrexia):

Creatures (16)
1 Suture Priest
1 Inquisitor Exarch
1 Porcelain Legionnaire
1 Blade Splicer
1 Kemba’s Skyguard
1 Neurok Invisimancer
1 Blinding Souleater
1 Trespassing Souleater
1 Insatiable Souleater
1 Wing Splicer
1 Glimmerpoint Stag
1 Slash Panther
2 Spire Monitor
1 Maul Splicer
1 Scrapdiver Serpent

Non-Creatures (8)
1 Vapor Snag
2 Mycosynth Wellspring
1 Apostle’s Blessing
1 Revoke Existence
1 Arm with Æther
1 Dismember
1 Contagion Engine

Lands (16)
8 Plains
6 Island
2 Forest

I’m not gonna post what the rest of my sealed pool was, but I was all over the place. I had a lot of good cards, but not enough to make a very consistent theme. It took me until almost the end of the allotted deckbuilding time to make the painful decision to cut all of my red cards (except Slash Panther) and run with a mostly white-blue build with lots of flying/evasive creatures, all three of my Splicers, and a small but diverse removal package. I really think luck smiled on me when I landed on not one but two Mycosynth Wellsprings, which let me easily splash green for Maul Splicer and helped thin my deck.

Glimmerpoint Stag is always screaming to be abused whenever he shows up in my Sealed pool, and this time was no exception. He was absolutely nutty with the Splicers and with Suture Priest, netting me an advantage that often made the difference between a win and a loss in a tournament with very few Wrath effects. (And without Besieged packs, Phyrexian Rebirth was absent.) Even without the Stag and Splicer shenanigans, Suture Priest by herself is one of those creatures that’s pretty much always worth playing in Limited if you’re in white just because it turns a creature advantage – for either player – into a life surplus for you. She actually won me a game after one of my opponents cast a late-game Precursor Golem in desperation and put himself in range for death by Inquisitor Exarch. Either Suture Priest is too broken or Blood Seeker from Zendikar is too weak, and I haven’t yet decided which is true. >.>

The other creatures I wanna bring attention to in this deck are Porcelain Legionnaire and the aforementioned Slash Panther. Playing against these two is a pain in the ass, and because they’re both common, they were everywhere in this tournament and every New Phyrexia Limited event thereafter. The last thing an aggro deck – especially a fast one – wants to see a 3/1 first striker on turn 2 ready to kill whatever you throw at your opponent. Sure, he dies to a stiff wind just like all the other low-toughness Scars block creatures that get impaled upon his lance, but that requires having a stiff wind in your hand and playing it before you do anything else. In many situations, he’s strictly better than a Wall of Tanglecord. And of course, Slash Panther is like all other haste creatures and red cards in general in that he can really screw up combat math. But the fact that the one red symbol is mana cost is Phyrexian makes him just as splashy as the Legionnaire, meaning now anyone can pull out a 4-damage block-me bomb from out of nowhere.

My advice to anyone in Limited events staring down these beasties is to remember that they’re artifacts, and that’s as much a drawback as it is a benefit. Which brings me to my triple New Phyrexia Draft deck from the Launch Party the following week…

Creatures (12)
3 Immolating Souleater
2 Priest of Urabrask
2 Insatiable Souleater
1 Tormentor Exarch
3 Slash Panther
1 Chancellor of the Forge

Non-Creatures (12)
3 Gremlin Mine
2 Shrine of Piercing Vision
1 Apostle’s Blessing
2 Scrapyard Salvo
1 Artillerize
1 Isolation Cell
2 Victorious Destruction

Lands (16)
2 Phyrexia’s Core
14 Mountain

Yeah… Drafting three packs of New Phyrexia is a guaranteed way for you to build something that looks like a bad Block deck. <.<

When you’re drafting from a pack that doesn’t seem to have a lot of colorless cards in it, it can be easy to forget that many colored cards in the set are in fact artifacts. But Gremlin Mine was one of those cards that really caught my eye as a way to screw up most other decks in the format. To put things in perspective, there are only 15 artifact creatures in the entire block that Gremlin Mine can’t blow up, and 10 of them are rare or mythic. They’re extremely handy for offing the annoying Porcelain Legionnaire and Slash Panther – you’ll notice I’m packing 3 of the latter myself – and they can even deal with some game-enders like Golem Artisan and Lumengrid Gargoyle.

…Not that the Artisan and Gargoyle exist in a triple New Phyrexia Draft, but you get the idea.

After grabbing the 3 Gremlin Mines and some other goodies, I started noticing just how many of the artifacts I was taking were expendable. With metalcraft cards nowhere to be found, I decided to embrace this strategy, not the least of which because I kept getting passed lots of Scrapyard Salvos.

Going into this Draft, I thought Scrapyard Salvo was a horrible card, but in practice, it turned out to be just the opposite. ^^ Every time I played one, it dealt somewhere between 4 and 6 damage, which is ridiculous for a burn spell that costs 3. And just to add to the ridiculosity, I nabbed myself two copies of Phyrexia’s Core in case I needed to throw one of my artifacts away on a whim, and my relatively meager creature pool was stacked with low-toughness block-me bombs that just so happened to be artifacts. Immolating Souleater in particular really shined thanks to his synergy with Priest of Urabrask, but of course, his resemblance to a repeatable Gut Shot makes him viable in red with or without extra mana producers. I was consistently able to bring my opponent’s life total down to single digits in a hurry, and all the crazy machinery I had going in this deck really changed my outlook on Scrapyard Salvo as a finisher. It started looking less like some random splashy common that will never see play in anything and more like… well… a Fireball. >.>

So yes, New Phyrexia is making certain Magic metagames faster, and a few of the cards that can be splashed in any deck can get pretty annoying if left unchecked, but none of the new strategies I have seen are insurmountable. Turn-2 and turn-3 wins have existed in Standard before the introduction of Glistener Elf and Immolating Souleater, and infinite combos like Deceiver Twin have been around forever. I haven’t yet seen the full impact that this set will have on Extended or Legacy, but Mental Misstep will no doubt be a major player, and black discard decks in all formats are showing interest in the combo-wrecking Surgical Extraction.

Look on the bright side. At least you can do something in response to this one.

As for the flavor of the set? Well, like I said, the rest of the block felt far from Mirran and wasn’t all that nostalgic to play, but I have read a fair amount of rumors suggesting that New Phyrexia was originally supposed to be the first set in the block, and that wouldn’t surprise me very much because I think it blew its two predecessors out of the water. Definitely another third-set flavor win for the folks at Wizards. Again, the only thing that really bothers me is that Phyrexian influence can be found in colors that don’t make much sense for them or for the colors, but that’s been a problem since Besieged. And at this point, given Phyrexia’s compulsion to invade and corrupt anything it touches, it doesn’t bother me much anymore. Sure, the major mechanic of the set is a life-as-a-substitute-for-mana dealie that the designers supposedly invented at the last minute, but it does create some interesting battles of wits and taps into Phyrexia’s adaptive nature.

Besides, I think Wizards themselves understands how weird it feels for an entire set to be “black,” and they’re offering plenty of consolations. For one thing, they’ve tried an “all-black” set before (Torment), and the players didn’t like the results. Putting Phyrexia in all colors was a necessary flavorful sacrifice to keep the game as modular as possible. For another thing, the creation of Phyrexian mana violates a key tenet of Wizards’ post-2010 design philosophy to limit the number of cards that new players wouldn’t be too crazy about. But there are casual Commander decks coming out next month, and the 2012 Core Set is due out in July, so there will be plenty of options more palatable to newbies to balance out all the life-payment craziness. And for yet another thing, the accompanying storyline suggests that the red Phyrexian praetor – Urabrask the Hidden – is playing the role of Oskar Schindler, harboring native Mirrans in the plane’s furnace layer so they may one day rise up and overcome their oppressors. Even some Phyrexians, it appears, have standards.

In the meantime, New Phyrexia will continue to look and feel like New Phyrexia and challenge the minds of anyone willing to do battle with other planeswalkers using their unorthodox mechanics.

I’m actually building an Infect deck now. Being bad never felt so good. >:3

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Posted by on May 28, 2011 in Gaming


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