ONSLAUGHT TOURNEY REPORT
I haven’t played Magic in three years, since Tempest rotated out of Type II. The game’s taken a lot from me (money, girls, time), but it’s given a lot, too—when I went on Sally Jessy Raphael to promote my book and mentioned that I played Magic in high school, people screamed and clapped. I dunno; Magic players are a lot more numerous and influential than they realize. That’s why it was a blast to re-connect with them at the Onslaught pre-release.
I showed up at the pre-release outside of Philly twenty minutes late. I didn’t have anything to worry about, naturally. The event (a sealed deck followed by a draft) was very overbooked and the organizers had to scramble to put all the unexpected attendees in a room upstairs, next to a funeral (we were told to use our “indoor voices”). I instantly connected with a bunch of kids who filled me in on the new set, from morphing to…uh, morphing.
Morphing is fun. (Onslaught is fun too, on the whole, but we’ll get to that later.) I don’t think there’s been a fun-ner ability since buyback. It’s especially fun, and especially powerful, in sealed. I know you want to know immediately about specific cards; here’s the deal: black has nifty morphers (Grinning Demon, Haunted Cadaver, Silent Specter) and red has SICK ones (Snapping Thragg, Blistering Firecat).
For chumps who don’t know, morphing enables a creature to be cast as a generic, colorless 2/2 for 3. (You play with it flipped over when it’s in this state.)At any time you can pay mana (i.e. at any time), you may pay a cost detailed on the morpher and flip him over to reveal him as a full-blown creature with color, casting cost, power/toughness and abilities like any other. It’s a game mechanic that makes you think differently about creature combat and removal, which is what makes it so great.
From the get-go, it isn’t bad to have a 2/2 for 3. You get a colorless creature, which means protection-from critters or prejudiced spells can’t hurt it, plus you can use any mana you want to throw it out there, which is great for sealed, where you should be playing three colors anyway. (In constructed, morphers could be put in a deck with Coalition Victory, cast for colorless and revealed in a swoop of two—or three—to win the game. The opponent would have no idea which morph was which color and would be unable to target them before they revealed themselves…but that’s the sort of combo that has kept me from ever playing Magic at a semi-professional level.)
Morphing costs (the cost to flip your creature over) range from 1 to 7, with one or two colored mana required. Generally, the morph ability is very under-costed. WotC figured that since you’re tapping 3 land to cast a eunuch 2/2 on one turn, you shouldn’t have to pay that much to make it a fatty or use it to get wild card advantage the next turn. (It’s tough to think of any situation where you would want to cast a morpher as a 2/2 and reveal him the same turn—you could always just pay the normal casting cost!) The low cost of morphing lets you engage in real shenanigans once you get your robot 2/2s in play. Card advantage is criminal with these morphers. I attack you with some colorless Grizzly Bears. You let the damage go through—bam, for 1B, my Grizzly Bears are now Haunted Cadaver, a Zombie that I can sacrifice when it deals combat damage to a player to make him chuck three cards. You lose your hand and 2 life. Snapping Thragg is another winner. He costs 4RR to activate, but flips over (after your opponent has let the damage through, of course) to become a 3/3 that Lightning Bolts any creature when it deals combat damage to an opponent. I instantly zap any toughness 3-or-under targetable critter, which covers most of the powerful critters in Onslaught (not to mention every un-morphed morph). Take 3, lose a creature, and I get semi-fat…makes me think of a card near and dear to my heart the last time I got suckered into Magic: Nekrataal! (There’s also a half-pint Snapping Thragg, Skirk Commando, that costs 2R to morph and hits a creature for 2 damage when it gets through. I’ll let the Magic elite determine which one makes it into Constructed.)
So okay, since these morphers are so dangerous, why don’t you just blast them when they’re 2/2 shmuck chumps? That’s not as easy as it sounds, due to the timing of morph. Two of the best-costed removal cards in Onslaught, Swat and the re-printed Shock, depend on a 2 in the power or toughness column of their targets. You Shock my morph; in response, for 1GG, he’s a 3/4 Hystrodon. You Shock dies and now I have a semi-fat trampler that lets me draw a card whenever I damage you in combat (look for this rare to get snapped up by Constructed players). Smother, a well-costed black removal common, can kill creatures with casting cost 3 or less, but you can make sure that’s not the case with a quick morph. Fizzle fizzle.
Not enough for you? Then consider the most innovative aspect of morphs: bluffing, an old-school gaming skill that Onslaught makes you learn. Before, you only really needed to bluff in Magic if you played a control deck. Now everybody’s got to do it. Let’s say I attack you with two morphs; you Swat one, send him to the graveyard, and he turns out to be a Foothill Guide (W 1/1, Protection from Goblins). Meanwhile the other morph reveals himself as Ebonblade Reaper, who makes you lose half your life rounded up when he gets through on an attack. With bluffing, the weenie morphs that seem useless at first do double duty—they can be turn-one drops or mid- to late-game bluffs. Getting attacked with two morphers by an opponent with five or six untapped lands is not a fun position to be in.
Believe me; I was in it, more than once, and it spelled D-O-O-M. The morphs mentioned above are all great (except for Ebonblade Reaper, which looks like it should win you games but never does); combined with black’s new utility common fighter, Nantuko Husk (2B for a 2/2 Zombie, Sacrifice a Creature: Nantuko Husk gets +2/+2 until end of turn) they make creature combat really scary. We haven’t even mentioned the first-striker red morph than you can use to eradicate a blocker (Battering Craghorn). White and blue (especially blue) have weak morphers, but here’s the bottom line: you used to have to watch out for two untapped islands in Magic. With Onslaught, your have to worry about three untapped anythings.
(A note on Constructed: I suspect that the copycat nature of the metagame will dictate that certain morphers get used in this format and certain ones don’t. In four weeks, when a black player casts a morph, you might be damn sure it’s Grinning Demon—one of the best in the set, being snapped up by dealers after the pre-release. That would be a shame because it would dull the “bluffing” aspect of morphing, but it will never lose its surprise value in Sealed.)
The other theme that WotC harps on in Onslaught (besides the return of cycling—ho hum) are tribal cards. You know, Goblins, Clerics, Wizards, Elves and Beasts—the new five-critter demographic that Onslaught shoves at us. Whereas before, it took some real effort to put together a Merfolk deck, in Onslaught the tribe decks fall in your lap; many people at the pre-release got nine Goblins and a Goblin Avatar—what do you think they played? (They lost, of course, but that’s because they didn’t realize that morphs would rule the day.) The support of theme creatures even extends to a silly blue Wizard that has “protection from Beasts.”
Some of the goblins are exciting. Goblin Sledder, a turn-one drop that can sacrifice itself (or any other Goblin) to give any creature +1/+1 until end of turn, is a nice harkening back to Mogg Fantastic. Black has a similar turn-one “Zombie Goblin” (Festering Goblin—with great art!) who slaps a –1/-1 any creature when he dies. These two are lots of fun in Sealed and useful in Constructed; the 3R haste Goblin Avatar, Reckless One, is also compelling. The Lords, however, are very silly for all the creature types; they usually involve tapping five creatures to gain 10 life or something childish. WotC put a lot of casual play cards into the set and, hey, I don’t have a problem with it. The tribe that seems to have the most potential for Constructed players are Wizards, especially Zombie Wizards (yes, many creatures are “multicolor” tribes), who seem to be quite good at getting things into and out of graveyards, which to Constructed players reads: “break me!” Of course, you’re all going to miss threshold. But you’ll get by.
Many people at the pre-release were excited about the Elves, of whom a kajillion have been printed in Onslaught, including the Ice Age re-hash Taunting Elf. However, if I were playing green, I would be a lot more interested in the new green disenchant, Naturalize, and the big green spell that resets everyone’s life equal to the number of creatures they control (Biorhythm). One is something we’ve been looking for forever; the other is something that somebody smart is going to build a deck around (and it wouldn’t necessarily be a heavy green deck, either, with the under-cost of morphing). The aforementioned trampling, card-drawing morpher, Hystrodon, is pretty damn cool as well.
I think red, black and green got the best of this set, but then again, I would think that, having just played a sealed (I went 1-1, then left to hang with the girl I’m dating, who couldn’t understand how I could spend six hours playing Magic when I told her back in high school I was going to quit). The red rare that allows you to shock something every turn instead of drawing (Words of War) is fierce. Morphing is awesome. The set, on the whole, is overcosted, but that’s to spur creature combat, and we are going to have some awesome creature combat in the next few months.
Hey, I’m thinking of getting back in the game. The fact that I got a foil Rorix Bladewing has to mean something. Yeah. That’s right. Contact me about it. I’ll sell it to you face down.
Ned Vizzini is a young genius and is the author of Teen Angst? Naaah…, one of the best books ever written about growing up in the 90s. He has a whole chapter devoted to Magic, which he started mainlining in Revised. He’s on the web at www.NedVizzini.com.
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