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Undying: Back for More

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

Avacyn Restored previews have officially begun, and among the new and flavorful mechanics that this new set introduces lurks an old enemy of many limited players: Undying. Many limited players are not huge fans of the Undying cards in Dark Ascension.

In his article on the design of Undying, Mark Rosewater emphasizes that it is a mechanic which is subtly powerful. Most Undying cards look way less impressive than they are. Drafters tend to look at the “front end” of the card and evaluate it’s power level based on that alone. This means that cards like Nearheath Stalker and Vengeful Vampire are often undervalued because of their small or fragile initial presence. This has two consequences in the context of drafting and playing Undying cards:

The first consequence is that you may be less enthusiastic about picking up most of these cards early. A 4/1 creature without evasion for five mana seems worse than many other options for that spot. Likewise, a 3/2 flier for six mana isn’t much of a curve-topper. Drafters tend to feel bad when opening or picking Undying cards because they look weaker than they are.

The second consequence is when players are faced with the real power of an Undying creature on the other side of the battlefield. You might have frowned at the 4/1 for five mana when it was in the pack along with four or five other cards, but you’re sure to be groaning when your Russet Wolves and Morkrut Banshee are looking to trade with the same Undying vampire only to have it come back stronger. Players feel bad when playing against the Undying cards because, as Mark Rosewater points out, they “break the rules.” They’re supposed to die, but instead they just come back stronger.

While these two concerns are especially relevant when dealing with players who are not used to competitive limited play, it is not at all irrelevant for more seasoned players. Even intermediate and better players will feel worse about “having to play” cards that look unexciting or not fun because of the power level of the cards. The fact that Undying only showed up in the first pack also meant that every table would only have a few. There would rarely be a single deck with more than three or four Undying cards, so it was difficult for drafters to work the ability into the theme of their decks. This looks like it is going to change with Avacyn Restored. Before we talk about that, however, let’s go through the Undying fiends of Dark Ascension one by one and evaluate how they fared in the Dark Ascension/Innistrad limited format.

Undying in Dark Ascension

The Commons: Nearheath Stalker, Sightless Ghoul, Stormbound Geist, Young Wolf and Undying Evil

Nearheath Stalker falls into the large category of Dark Ascension/Innistrad cards called “red five-drops.” This fragile fiend has to compete with two packs worth of Night Revelers and Scourge of Geier Reach. That makes it a lot less appealing when you’re deciding which card to take out of your Dark Ascension pack. You can only fit so many five-drops in your curve, especially in the aggressive, tempo-oriented Innistrad/Dark Ascension format.

Nearheath Stalker’s single toughness the first time around is another concern. The inherent two-for-one potential of the Undying ability is what makes the Stalker slightly more attractive than both the Revelers and the Scourge in the abstract. However, the many “pinger” effects floating around in the environment on commons like Geistflame, Ashmouth Hound, and Forge Devil tend to negate this. There are match-ups where the Stalker will almost always trade for “half a card” the first time around and then end up trading its other half for a bear-sized creature–not what you want out of your five-drop.

There’s no doubt that Nearheath Stalker was playable in Dark Ascension/Innistrad limited. I have to admit that my early outrage at seeing it in a pack with only three or four other cards in it was not well-founded. It fills out a role that has no shortage of takers, and while it is better at that role than most other commons, you would much prefer to have a powerful uncommon or rare in its place.

The next card is even less exciting: Sightless Ghoul has yet to make any of my draft decks. Its offensive capabilities are much less impressive than the Stalker’s despite its slightly higher toughness. Where the Stalker’s problem is that it trades with so much, the Ghoul’s problem is the polar opposite: Nobody wants to trade with it because if you ignore it, you’re probably still winning. Even if you don’t have a card like Gavony Ironwright or Armored Skaab to block it, it’s only attacking for two each turn, and it cannot stay back on defense. Being able to block would have made it a lot better in a world filled with 2/2s. It would take a heavy Zombie tribal theme to play this card over anything in your best 23. It deserves its place left in the sideboards of drafters who end up with one of these in their pile.

Next up is a much less depressing card. Stormbound Geist was initially rated as a very strong card but has since settled into a much less exciting “merely decent.” A 2/2 flier for three mana is not unreasonable even if its mana requirement is a little restrictive. If you’re ever actually trading this for an opponent’s non-Stormbound Geist flier, you’re happy. What hamstrings this card a bit is the fact that the fliers it has to compete with in this format often have no problems dealing with the “first half” of the card. Commons like Chapel Geist, Nephalia Seakite and Voiceless Spirit all deal with the Geist the first time around.

“And so what?”, you may argue, “It will just come back large enough to attack through the blockers next turn.” While that is not untrue, you are giving your opponent the choice of whether to kill it or let it through. Why not simply take the damage and swing back with those 2-power fliers of their own? If an opponent blocks and kills your Stormbound Geist the first time around, expect them to have a combat trick or other method of dealing with the other half.

Next up is the only non-creature on the list. Undying Evil is a cheap and effective instant,  a kind of combat trick and one of the more powerful Undying cards. At first glance, many limited players underrated Undying Evil. Is granting a creature Undying really worth a full card? Time and experience would prove that the answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!”

There are several reasons why this card is deceptively powerful. The first, which is important for instants and combat tricks in particular, is that it’s cheap. It’s easy to leave the mana up for a reactive Undying Evil or throw it out there in combat during your own attack and still be able to cast a spell in your second main phase. Second, it circumvents one of the greatest restrictions of the Undying mechanic: you can cast this on any creature–not just the ones that are balanced to wear the mechanic. In a set with so many on-death triggers and no shortage of dying creatures, this is important.

Compare Sightless Ghoul with a card like Midnight Guard or Orchard Spirit. The latter are both playable, if not very splashy. Stapling the Undying mechanic on them for one black mana makes them suddenly much more impressive. Sure, it costs you a card. But you can do it at instant speed and apply it to any creature in your deck that is looking to trade or take a removal spell to the face. Saving your Elgaud Inquisitor or Geist-Honored Monk with this spell and making spirit tokens is sure to swing the game massively in your favor.

The last common Undying card, Young Wolf is not a card that I have personally played with a lot. However, I have seen it do work in some decks. Its quality depends enormously on the context. In a black/green deck with lots of Morbid effects and a Deadly Allure or two, it may do a lot of work (editor’s note: relatively speaking, since black/green is horrifyingly bad!). In a White-Green beatdown deck, having a hard-to-block one-drop to wear your equipment can be amazing in a pinch.

In Limited, one-drops have to be really good to be worth the slot in your deck. Young Wolf doesn’t always cut the mustard. As a green player, you really want to be beating away on the ground, and a 1/1 isn’t the most effective card you can have in that department. And playing it just to leave it back as a blocker goes counter to what green decks are trying to do: beat the opponent on the ground.

The Uncommons: Pyreheat Wolf, Relentless Skaabs, Strangleroot Geist and Vengeful Vampire:

Now things are getting interesting. Wizards obviously gave the Undying cards at higher rarities the thumbs-up to be a little more powerful than the commons.

Pyreheart Wolf is a card that took many players by surprise. It looks utterly unimpressive as a 1/1 for three mana until you play against it for the first time and realize how much of an impact it has on the board. Pyreheart royally messes up any attempt at combat math or profitable blocking. Either an opponent has to spend two blockers on it (or other small attackers) and let your large creatures through or they have to pile blockers in front of a large attacker. Meanwhile, Pyreheart Wolf and its pack are getting in, ready for another groan-inducing attack next turn. The fact that you have to deal with it twice before the nightmare stops pushes it over the top.

This is the first Undying card we’ve evaluated that I advise taking first pick. It fits extremely well into any aggressive deck with red mana. And aggressive decks are the powerhouses of Innistrade/Dark Ascension Limited. It isn’t too hard on mana requirements, the ability stays relevant and Pyreheart has the potential to just make an opening hand incredible. The fact that red supports it with other “panic effects” on cards like Markov Warlord and Crossway Vampire is just icing on the cake.

Next, we get to the fat, blue Relentless Skaabs. This card illustrates very clearly how much the 3 extra toughness matters compared to the Nearheath Stalker. Whereas the Stalker is borderline playable most of the time, the Skaabs is an obvious inclusion and should be picked up pretty early in the pack. The fact that casting it is a little harder both on the mana and on the graveyard is almost inconsequential because of its position in the top end of the curve. Its four toughness ensures that it will trade favorably before and after its return. A fatty with a built-in, almost assured two-for-one is a great addition to almost any deck.

From fatties to fasties, we get to the super-aggressive Strangleroot Geist. While this card has a restrictive mana cost, its low toughness is much less of a drawback because you are only paying two mana for it. Casting this on turn two and immediately trading its first life for your opponent’s two-drop will make most players crack a wide smile. Blocking the Geist on turn two only means you’re digging yourself deeper if the opponent can keep the pressure on you.

This aggressive capability is what makes the Geist much more likely than the Stalker or the Ghoul to actually trade two-for-one. Your opponent can’t simply afford to “take it” while you’re getting more creatures out there and into the red zone as fast as possible. This forces him or her to deal with it sooner or later instead of under more favorable circumstances. The two green color commitment makes it less of an obvious first-pick in a draft situation than the Pyreheart Wolf, but it certainly is powerful enough to warrant it in the right pack.

The last (and least) of the uncommon Undying creatures is the Vengeful Vampire. While its three power and the ability to block ground creatures makes it much more likely to actually trade for something than Stormbound Geist, it also costs an additional three mana to cast. It still has trouble with blockers like Voiceless Spirit and Stitched Drake, though. While it’s fine as an evasive finisher, you’re not always excited to play it even if it really is a two-for-one most of the time. The fact that it shows up so late in the game means that it often isn’t fast or large enough to swing the game quite as much as you hope for from your six-drop. While by no means a bad card, Vengeful Vampire is often the worst of the uncommon Undying creatures in Dark Ascension.

The Rares: Flayer of the Hatebound, Geralf’s Messenger and Geralf’s Mindcrusher

Rares are less impacting on limited than uncommons and that shines through in their design. Flayer of the Hatebound is an excellent card in limited even at six mana. It provides pressure to close out the game and almost always trades for a creature, kills another one upon reentering the battlefield (or Lava Axes the opponent), and still presents a huge threat afterwards. The low commitment in the color department also makes it an excellent first-pick since splashing it alongside burn or flashback in a White-Green aggressive deck is a reasonable plan.

Geralf’s Messenger, on the other hand, is clearly aimed at the Constructed audience. I do not mean to imply that it is unplayable in limited–because it certainly isn’t–but it is not going to be cast on turn three unless you pull off an amazing draft and are passed loads of good, black cards. It is much more realistic to think of it like Vengeful Vampire above. I personally think that the Messenger is more effective at closing out the game. Just don’t treat it as a three-drop. It isn’t. This matters when considering where to pick it in a draft. It’s not the first pick you are hoping for and it is often correct to pass it for a less powerful (but also less color-intensive) common or uncommon, especially if there are other good black cards in the pack.

Geralf’s Mindcrusher is similar to Relentless Skaabs, just a little bit bigger, a little bit more expensive, and has an enters-the-battlefield effect of which blue is fond. You are often not dropping this guy until far into the game, however, and you need to balance the risk of milling yourself out versus finding your opponent flashback spells or fueling some other graveyard-based plan they might have. Ultimately, it’s usually worth it even then to have this huge, recurring fatty to bash with. It can also mill an opponent if the game draws really long or some of the work has been done in advance. A good first-pick in most cases.

The Mythics: Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Vorapede

These are seldom relevant to limited play, so I want to be very brief in talking about them. Mikaeus, the Unhallowed very powerful and worth the color commitment. He’s often said to be the best limited card in Dark Ascension. The fact that he–besides being a 5/5 walking Anthem effect with intimidate–provides most creatures on your side with Undying is just devastating. He makes combat impossibly hard for the opponent and provides an extremely effective clock that gets more effective when you have some minions to back him up.

I have yet to play with Vorapede, but I am of the impression that the color concern is a much more serious issue than with Mikaeus. Its impact on the board is not nearly as immediate and removal like Claustrophobia and Bonds of Faith can neutralize this card effectively. It’s probably right to first-pick it anyways. But, rather than fighting tooth and nail to be able to cast it, I would be sure not to marry my first pick and instead watch for which colors are flowing, content to hope that Green will be one of them.

Undying in Avacyn Restored

With the experiences from Dark Ascension in mind, let’s consider what they can tell us about how Undying will work in the Avacyn Restored limited environment: what has changed, and what is still applicable? What should we be thinking when we start drafting after the release events?

Avacyn Restored is going to be drafted alone like Rise of the Eldrazi. All three packs will have the potential to contain Undying cards. As a result, it will be easier to try to weave a theme around the mechanic if the support is there. You can expect to be facing Undying cards in almost any match-up.

The other mechanics of Avacyn Restored also work with Undying in a wholly different way than those of Innistrad and Dark Ascension. There will be shenanigans with resetting your Undying creatures through “flickering.” Soulbound creatures will make it possible to bring an Undying creature back not only bigger, but also with a whole new ability. The “loners”–especially the black Demons that feed on your other creatures–will be glad to have your Undying creatures to feast on.

In short, Undying looks to have a lot of synergy with the rest of the set. This is good in terms of crafting a good limited experience, but also means that the power level of the creatures need to be kept firmly in check. As of writing this article, only a single card with Undying has been previewed: Howlgeist, an uncommon six-drop 4/2 that cannot be blocked by anything with less power than it has. I do not expect a lot of low-cost Undying creatures or any powerful abilities that trigger on death or entry. Howlgeist seems consistent with that expectation.

Avacyn Restored’s limited environment will be completely different from Innistrad/Dark Ascenion. Perhaps the format will be enough slower that the Undying creatures will have the time to shine. Or, perhaps there will be effects available that exile or tap down creatures like Claustrophobia or Burden of Guilt in Dark Ascension/Innistrad. On the other hand, if there is a shortage of such effects, Undying may prove to be even stronger in Avacyn Restored. For a jump on Avacyn Restored limited, keep an eye out for effects like these as the spoilers complete.

The way the set is currently shaping up, we have reason to believe that removal will be thin and not dominated by Pacifism-like effects. The existence of the “flickering” mechanic makes such removal unreliable and locking down one half of a soulbound pair is probably a negative experience that Wizards has tried to prevent from happening too often. Most of the removal in Avacyn Restored seems aimed to remove the target from the battlefield. This, of course, makes Undying stronger. A lot of the set still remains unknown. Keep an eye out for this and for instant speed bounce effects as well.

How best to take advantage of Undying in Avacyn Restored limited, then? Ultimately, its basic utility is the same: it lets a creature count twice. Undying creatures are good at pushing through in the late-game or to apply early pressure. What this means is that the most attractive Undying creatures in Avacyn Restored, like in Dark Ascension, will fall into two categories.

One category will include the equivalents of Strangleroot Geist and Pyreheart Wolf: early creatures that put so much pressure on an opponent that they cannot be ignored. These will obviously be best at home in aggressive decks. Since I predict that the extreme focus on tempo that was in Innistrad and Dark Ascension will not carry over to Avacyn Restored, these decks will probably be harder to put together but also better if you do manage to draft one.

The other category, and the one I consider the most relevant, is that of the big finishers. We already have the Howlgeist, a 4-power creature with evasive capabilities. Flayer of the Hatebound was extremely good at closing out games and in a slower and less “hostile” environment, even lesser fiends than the Flayer will probably be excellent as finishers.

Undying is a mechanic that fits best on more expensive creatures (even more so in the new set, for the reasons mentioned above). Keep in mind that even if the Undying creatures of Avacyn Restored are all great cards, your deck can easily be saturated with expensive cards. Even if most of these cards are great on an individual basis, you need to keep an eye on the mana curve and game-plan of your deck. Limited environments today require decks to have a cohesive plan, not just a bunch of “value guys.” I expect the same from Avacyn Restored. You might want to bend your deck a bit to abuse the inherent power of Undying, but make sure that you don’t break it.

I hope you enjoyed the read and would welcome any comments on here or @Lobster667 on Twitter.

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