Last time we took a look at the top five, the very picks of the litter – those decks that for one reason or another inspired and impressed. As an added bonus, we even looked at the top two Event Decks that emerged from the block. This time around, however, we’re headed down… down, down, to the bottom of the barrel. Opposites, right?
It’s a fact of any rating system that not everything can be equal – why else have a rating system? And if there are winners, by definition there must also be losers. That isn’t to say that those on the bottom end of the scale are terrible – if your top-end is “here’s a free hundred-dollar bill” and your bottom is “here, have a fifty,” that’s still not a bad deal.
But no, no such relativistic positions will save us here – some of the decks we’re about to spotlight aren’t the marginally worst of a fantastic bunch… no, they’re just, well… born bad.
If that’s indeed the case, then it begs the question… what makes a deck bad? Let’s have a look at our finalists and find out…
5. Carnival of Blood (Innistrad)
One interesting thing about the ratings we give the decks on Ertai’s Lament is to see how they fall in the spectrum of the block. In this case, they quite literally selected themselves – five decks scored less than 4.00 out of 5. Coming in just under that mark is Carnival of Blood.
When the decks of Innistrad released, it was a lot of fun to tear into the first real tribal offerings in some time. Not every tribe was represented, of course – we’d never see a Werewolves deck for a number of reasons throughout the life of the block – but the main ones sooner or later got their turn in the spotlight.
In addition to Humans and Spirits, Innistrad gave us a Vampire-themed offering, Carnival of Blood. In a typical build, a creature-focused swarm deck lives and dies on its ability to go either around or through what opposes it, draining an opponent’s life total dry. If the red zone becomes clogged and congested, however, these decks tend to stall out and then die as the opponent sets their game in motion.
Carnival of Blood tried both approaches feebly. It offered you a whiff of evasion with cards like Cobbled Wings and Gruesome Deformity. You got a sprinkle of removal and burn. But overall, this Red and Black deck couldn’t deliver a single piece of targeted killpower outwith a singleton Fireball.
Instead, despite the set having several pieces of toned-down removal, you had to make do with two [card Tribute to Hunger]Tributes to Hunger[/card]. However thematic the selection, the Vampires – and by extension, the deck’s pilot – deserved better.
4. Swift Justice (Dark Ascension)
When we assessed the deck, we concluded that the deck’s name was “cruel, cruel irony” given that the deck wanted to behave like an aggressive Boros swarm decks with your average creature having a converted mana cost of three. If that was the only problem, we might well have soldiered on, but the deck had a few other things working against it.
First was the creatures’ fragility. If you’re paying that much for your beaters, you have a right to expect a bit of durability. Instead we’re treated to a host of 1-toughness creatures that are begging to be traded out with the 1/1 Spirit tokens that are crawling all over the environment. Unless your name is Ashmouth Hound, that’s a serious problem.
Just like the Vampires, Swift Justice struggled with removal. We have the White-feeling Burning Oil, which is highly conditional and can’t tough nettling utility creatures that don’t risk their necks in the red zone. For those, there was a pair of [card Wrack with Madness]Wrack with Madnesses[/card], but at four mana it was a bit of an ask for a sorcery-speed spell.
It’s all well and good if you want to have an environment that promotes creatures smashing into each other rather than surgical removal through spells. But if that’s the case, how far did they expect you to get with your 1-toughness dorks and a few fat angels?
3. Solitary Fiends (Avacyn Restored)
The best Intro Packs are often those that highlight and support a particular theme or mechanic of the set they are released with. A look at the top five shows this clearly to be the case, with decks like Eldritch Onslaught (flashback) and Dark Sacrifice (human sacrifice) making their way onto the list.
Of course, the unspoken assumption is that the mechanic or theme being highlighted is worthy of being called out. We’ve seen a number of mechanics come and go that weren’t able to support a deck on their own, like imprint from Scars of Mirrodin, and knowing when to build a deck and when to pass is the very soul of wisdom.
Unfortunately, the thematic “bad guys are isolated” theme of Avacyn Restored might have played well in the flavour, but it didn’t seem to translate all that well in practice. Aside from getting big guys more cheaply (Fettergeist) or a rare splashy effect (Lone Revenant), there really wasn’t enough payoff for having to hamstring yourself on the battlefield. If you were lucky, you might find one of the only three support cards – singletons all – that rewarded the strategy (Homicidal Seclusion, Demonic Rising, Predator’s Gambit).
One of the common charges leveled against exalted, the Bant mechanic from 2008′s Shards of Alara that has made a triumphant return in Magic 2013, is that if your opponent manages to bounce or kill your lone attacker, you’ve essentially just [card Fog]Fogged[/card] yourself and handed over a turn. This is not unfair, but, on the upside, even the least of your creatures can become truly massive if you’ve found enough exalted support.
Therein lies the crucial difference. If your opponent solves your exalted attacker, you just attack with a different creature next turn. You might have “lost” a turn of offense, but if so you’ve lost just the one.
With Solitary Fiends, you don’t have any backup support. If you’re playing the deck as it was intended, that creature you just lost was your only one, and now you’ll lose a second turn while you wait for your replacement’s summoning sickness to wear off. Here’s another point to consider: all those exalted guys just sitting around pumping up your champion? They can block, too.
Trying to mount a successful defense with Solitary Fiends is on par with trying to pluralize “Lone Ranger.”
2. Slaughterhouse (Avacyn Restored)
This one had promise, oh did it have promise! Some of the best Theme Decks to have seen print are those that succeed at crafting an intricate sacrifice engine. Mirrodin’s Sacrificial Bam and Coldsnap’s Beyond the Grave are two that are held up as paragons of the archetype, and it was hoped that Slaughterhouse would do for Humans what the others did for artifacts and Insidious Bookworms (sorry, Humans).
Alas, it was not to be. If those other decks were finely-tuned chrome engines, Slaughterhouse was one held together with plastic tubing, duct tape and good intentions. Although it has moments of glory, mainly involving early deployment of [card Demonic Taskmaster]Demonic Taskmasters[/card] or the Demonlord of Ashmouth, the rest of the deck seems out of tune.
Too much of the deck seems to be fighting over too few sacrificial resources, though [card Butcher Ghoul]Butcher Ghouls[/card] and the [card Reassembling Skeleton]Reassembling Skeletons[/card] were a nice touch (a third would have gone a long way). Other options, like the Maalfeld Twins, are more clever than they are effective, and, given the mana cost pricetag, a luxury the deck can scarcely afford.
Indeed, that’s another of the deck’s ails – too many expensive things that don’t directly move the deck forward. Raging Poltergeist. Grave Exchange. Even the ones that do synergise with the deck, like the aforementioned Maalfeld Twins and Gang of Devils, still clog up your hand and mana curve.
The deck could stand to be a few shades leaner, and the tools are there to polish it up quite a bit, but as we concluded in our initial review, “we have to take the decks as they are rather than how we wish them to be.”
1. Deathly Dominion (Innistrad)
Is there something to the decks of the first set that make them particularly vulnerable to charting high on the list of infamy? In our previous installment, Scars of Mirrodin’s Deadspread took top (dis)honours, and while a particularly clunky execution of totem auras snuck Rise of the Eldrazi to the top of Zendikar block, Zendikar itself took place and show.
To be fair, there’s a limit to ambition in those first sets that’s lessened as the year goes on. In the beginning, the available card pool is at its narrowest. Not only that, but we’ve only just seen the new themes and mechanics begin to be developed; often, they grow as the set goes on. Sadly, the bell tolled here for morbid, and it was a very quick and undignified burial.
For one thing, the Innistrad environment tended to put less emphasis on removal that we’ve seen in blocks like Scars of Mirrodin or Zendikar. This is fine- except the entire raison d’etre for the morbid mechanic is things dying. Your robust removal suite? A Prey Upon, a Doom Blade and a couple of [card Dead Weight]Dead Weights[/card] – that doesn’t exactly scream reliability. It’s especially difficult when some of your morbid creatures are so expensive, such as the Hollowhenge Scavenger and the Morkrut Banshee, and you have to add the costs of the removal spell and the creature.
That being the case, you’d expect the deck then to pack in a solid sacrifice suite, giving you ‘free’ ways to trigger your own central mechanic, but the sacrifice suite is wildly inconsistent. Your self-sacrificer, Brain Weevil, costs four mana, and there’s not much else that really offsets the inherent card disadvantage of that path.
Gaining life with the Disciple of Griselbrand? Equipping a mediocre artifact in the Demonmail Hauberk? This was a deck that needed the fodder-generating power of the Jade Mage, who was in legal rotation at the time. Instead, we ended up with a deck we compared to Scars of Mirrodin’s Deadpsread - a cool concept sadly let down by its execution and lack of development.
Sadly, although we’re treated to a score or so of new Intro Packs each year, they can’t all be winners. Some, like this block’s winner, are good ideas with a disappointing execution. Others seem to have been troubled right from the start. Still, credit to Dark Ascension, which had the least number of entries on the list!
Last time we added a new bonus feature to our look at the ‘best of,’ picking the top two Event Decks. In the interests of opposites, our theme from the outset of the piece, here are the two that occupy the bottom two rungs for Innistrad block.
2. Deathfed (Innistrad)
Let me start by saying that Deathfed isn’t a ‘bad’ deck, but someone’s got to be at the bottom of the list. In another world, perhaps, the deck sits somewhere in the middle, but the block had some standout performances with this product line. In a nutshell, Deathfed is a self-mill deck that looks to exploit the steady stream of cards tumbling into your graveyard with graveyard-dependent beaters like Splinterfright and the Boneyard Wurm. This is a solid enough objective, given the inclusion of playsets of Forbidden Alchemy and Armored Skaab. Indeed, these latter two part of the core of the recent Magic 2013 Event Deck Sweet Revenge, so clearly something’s working there.
The problem with Deathfed was that it played out in a very pedestrian manner. You spend the early part of the game stalling and sifting and sifting and stalling, and for what? A fat Boneyard Wurm your opponent can chump until the end of days? A Bonehoard? The Splinterfright, at least, has that all-important trample, but it’s just one card. Even the swarm of Spiders you could make with Spider Spawning isn’t all that menacing when it costs a full seven mana- including one of your splash colour- to flash back.
The final nail in the coffin for Deathfed came a set later when it was reproduced in Intro Pack form for Dark Ascension’s Grave Power. Grave Power had the very same strategy and even crossed over on a tactical level (see: Boneyard Wurm, Armored Skaab, Splinterfright, et al), but with some other splashier, more engaging cards like Ghoultree and- yes- Chasm Drake, it accomplished what Deathfed could not: fun.
1. Gleeful Flames (Dark Ascension)
It’s hard to feel good about poor ol’ Deathfed appearing here, since it actually rated fairly well but suffered from the quality of its peers. The same cannot be said for Gleeful Flames, which ranked well below.
Gleeful Flames is as good an example of a ‘glass cannon deck’ as you’re likely to find. Loaded with four-ofs, it has a laudable consistency. But much like a Belcher deck, you have to have the right set-up from the start or it can all go pear-shaped very quickly. The creatures you’re fielding are nearly all 1/1′s, and if you can’t find something to do with them – and soon – your odds of victory rapidly plummet as your opponent either starts deploying larger and larger threats or simply has more time to enact their game plan.
The deck also suffers from some questionable decisions. A Curse of Stalked Prey seems wildly optimistic, and it was seldom something we were happy to draw in playtesting, while a trio of [card Infiltration Lens]Infiltration Lenses[/card] seemed a shade too cute for its own good. Swapping the four out for even more burn would have helped even out the deck a bit. Our final word on the deck summed it up rather well: “there are players who don’t mind taking their lumps if it means that they get to shine brightly every now and again, and this deck is right in their bailiwick. For everyone else, we’d recommend giving it a pass.”
Thanks again for joining me today in a walk down the halls of infamy. We review a ton of decks, and while we always appreciate the hard work and effort that goes into making them, sometimes a child really is just ugly. The joy from the best of the bunch are more than enough to offset whatever misery these un-magnificent seven have offered us, and will keep us playing Innistrad block long after the set’s day has passed.