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By: oraymw, Oraymw
Feb 06 2012 11:19am
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A little less than a year ago, I wrote an article about why creatures are so important to Magic. You can read that article here: http://puremtgo.com/articles/ars-arcanum-creatures. The basic idea is that creatures are the game's pieces. This is especially important when looking at a limited format. Most reviewers will look at the entire set and try to piece together a picture of what the limited format is going to look like, but I’ve found that the most effective way to get an early handle on a limited format is through an examination of the common creatures. Creatures are generally more playable than spells, since they always have an impact on the game. They make up the bulk of the non-land cards in a deck, and they are played much more proactively. Because of this, the creatures are mainly what define a format.

Innistrad Limited took this concept even farther than most sets. First, the set features a pretty important tribal element. This makes creatures important because they add to the synergy of your deck. Second, tempo is king in Innistrad limited. You have to be doing things to affect the board early and often, or you won’t be able to compete when you get to the mid and late game. Third, Innistrad was specifically designed to have clunky and inefficient removal that is spread out over all five colors. This last factor is very important, and it is what made creatures like Stitched Drake or Darkthicket Wolf so dominant in Innistrad limited.

White Creatures

White is one of the creature colors. Not only do we get six creatures, but we also get a token generator. There are creatures all the way up the mana curve, so you should be able to get creatures to fill any mana slot that you need in White. Remember that White was the strongest color in Innistrad, and a large part of this was due to its strong creatures. White also likes cards like Travel Preparations and Equipment, and its two main tribes are humans and spirits.

First off, we see that White has an unplayable in the form of Sanctuary Cat. The Cat is dramatically worse than either Doomed Traveler or Selfless Cathar, and it really shouldn’t be finding its way into your decks. It does have cute cuddly art though.

Traditionally, White was paired with Green and sometimes Blue in Innistrad. There were RW and BW decks, but they were generally played on the fringe. In Dark Ascension, however, there are a lot of reasons to play white with every color combination, and a big part of that is the way the creatures in White support every other strategy. Gather the Townsfolk is perfect in the Travel Preparations deck, giving you two targets for Travel Preps by itself. Townsfolk, Cathar, and Inquisitor are all good in the Black deck where you want good humans to sacrifice that also provide you with extra value. Niblis of the Mist is excellent in a RW aggro deck where you can pair it with Crossway Vampire for a pretty aggressive run, and both Midnight Guard and Silverclaw Griffin fill important roles in a UW control deck.

White has four cards that produce humans. The human tribe gains additional importance in Dark Ascension, because humans can be used to fuel additional archetypes. One way the human creature type is important is with equipment, and each of White’s creatures are tailor-made to wear equipment. Let’s just use Sharpened Pitchfork as an example. On Gather the Townsfolk, you’ve got a pretty good attacker, but you can then move the pitchfork over to the other token for defense. On the Cathar, you get a 3/3 vigilant first striker, which makes both blocking and attacking incredibly difficult for your opponent. The Midnight Guard becomes a 3/4, but playing a creature untaps him, which makes him play similarly to the Cathar. Again, that is a difficult creature to block and a difficult creature to attack through. The Inquistor becomes a 3/3 first striking lifelinker, and when he dies he leaves a body behind. All of these things are incredibly powerful in Innistrad limited.

If you look at the commons as a whole, white seems pretty dismal. It doesn’t have any good removal spells, and it has several nearly worthless tricks. But, White balanced with bad spells with its good creatures. While White definitely took a hit in Dark Ascension, it still has the base for it to remain the most powerful color in the draft environment. The most difficult thing will be figuring out what color to pair it with.

Blue Creatures

Unlike White, Blue is not a creature color, so it only gets five creatures in Dark Ascension. This is automatically an uphill battle, but R&D often makes up for this by making the Blue creatures pretty good, and they did not disappoint with Dark Ascension. We’ve got three evasion creatures, a far above the curve Skaab, and an aggressive enabler. Furthermore, we’ve got two zombies and two spirits, which are blue’s dominant tribes.

The first card to discuss is Shriekgeist. This is not a good card. However, it is not as unplayable as Sanctuary Cat was in White. If you have some strong tribal synergies, or if you are playing a mill deck, than the Shriekgeist is playable. If you are really short on playables, and you’ve got a Silver-Inlaid Dagger, than it is reasonable to put in another evasive creature. But it should be noted that Shriekgeist is pretty bad, and definitely the loser in this color.

Otherwise, the Blue creatures are pretty strong. One of the dominant archetypes of Innistrad limited was UB zombies. The idea was that you could mill creatures into your graveyard and then play overpowered zombies for a discount price. While Blue loses Stitched Drake, the premier creature of that archetype, they still get to keep enough powerful creatures to keep the archetype viable. Screeching Skaab is going to be great in this format; Armored Skaab was a very powerful card, but Screeching Skaab being cheaper and having an arguably more relevant 2/1 body means that you will be seeing a lot of that disgusting zombie during the next few months.

Where Blue really makes some gains in this set is in the flyers. In Innistrad, blue had two flyers plus Delver of Secrets. The first, Stitched Drake, was one of the format defining creatures. However, Moon Heron and Delver of Secrets were less than exciting. Moon Heron was poorly equipped for the tempo based format, and it didn’t do a good job of attacking through the common white Flyers. Delver of Secrets often required too much work to transform. But the flyers in Dark Ascension are pretty amazing. Nephalia Seaskite is one of the best commons in the set. A 2/3 flyer for 3U would be decent in this format anyway; Chapel Geist was great at 1WW, which was often harder to cast than 3U. But most importantly, Seaskite has flash. Anyone who played during New Phyrexia will remember how great Spire Monitor was, but Seaskite is better. Losing 1 power is fine since it has 1 mana shaved off the cost. But more importantly, Scars was the kind of format where you could afford to leave your guys back if your opponent was representing a Spire Monitor. Often, it just wasn’t able to eat a creature. In Innistrad, however, you just don’t have that luxury. Seaskite is going to eat a lot of 2/2s in this format. Even more, it is synergistic with werewolves, as well as Bone to Ash and Griptide from the blue spells. Pick this up early and often. As for the Stormbound Geist, this is another guy that will do just fine in this format. Just a 2/2 flying that can only block flyers would be alright. We’ve been playing Vampire Interloper, and being a 2/2 overcomes his major weakness of being bad against tokens. But the Geist has Undying. While it won’t be as useful on defense, it will be pretty good with sacrifice effects, such as Altar’s Reap which can turn the Geist into a 3/3 at instant speed, while also drawing 2 cards.

Overall, Blue made out extremely well in this set. Expect it to continue to be one of the dominating colors once Dark Ascension gets released online.

Black Creatures

Black is not known for its creatures. In fact, it generally has the worst creatures of all the other colors. This is despite the fact that black is supposed to be the color with the medium number of creatures. Because of this, Black always has to fight a pretty steep uphill battle on the creature front. However, Black also tends to get pretty strong removal spells, and it often has strong synergies throughout the color, which helps make up for its deficiencies. Black is usually near the bottom tier of creatures you want for your deck, which means you are generally picking up the stellar creatures from other colors and then using the black creatures to supplement holes and fill in synergies.

In that regard, Black actually doesn’t fair too poorly in this set. It might seem like a fairly dismal conglomeration of black creatures, but it is worth taking a second to evaluate what is going on. First, we see that the black creatures are divided into two groups: Zombies and Vampires, which are the two tribes for black. But, the Chosen of Markov is interesting because it is also a Human. Being a human is often the most relevant creature type in the set, right behind being a zombie. Although Chosen of Markov can turn into a 4/4 vampire, there will be plenty of boards where you would rather just have a 2/2 human.

The synergies continue to build up. Falkenrath Torturer looks like a suboptimal card at first, but it has a unique ability that isn’t seen much in any of the two sets, which is the ability to sacrifice a creature on demand. There are several creatures in Innistrad and Dark Ascension which give you a benefit when they die: Doomed Travelers, or creatures with Undying for example. Being able to Sacrifice a Doomed Traveler at instant speed to block with a flying token is a pretty hand ability. This also allows you to put creatures in your graveyard to enable the Skaabs. Additionally, it works well with Green because you can turn on Morbid whenever you desire, and it also works well with Red since it is a vampire and since it can sacrifice Pitchburn Devils or it can turn on morbid for Brimstone Volley.

Also, Black Cat and Sightless Ghoul, though appearing very bad, have some synergies that make them slightly better than unplayable. Remember, these aren’t the ideal cards for your strategy, but if you are scrambling for playables and these have good synergy, then don’t be afraid to play them. The Black Cat is decent since it can hit the ground and clog up the area against anything with 1 toughness. Also, people are very afraid of having to discard at random, and so they will generally avoid attacking into this thing. If you chump block early, you can at least nab a card out of their hand, but you also get something in your yard to exile with Skaabs. Best of all, it is a zombie that you can bring back with Ghoulraiser or Ghoulcaller’s Chant. Likewise, Sightless Ghoul makes a decent card to sacrifice for an effect to turn it into a decent body. Sightless Ghoul is obviously the worst black creature, but it is worth keeping his synergies in mind.

Highborn Ghoul just makes a decent attacking creature that is also a zombie. There isn’t much to say about his synergies: he’s just a creature that can get in for some damage. Having intimidate is definitely better than flying in his case, since it means he can get in against spirit tokens. Finally, Reap the Seagraf is a very powerful creature that allows black to compete with the rest of the set. A 2/2 for 3 isn’t great in this set, but it is good enough, and being able to flash it back later when you start to run out of gas is a powerful ability. Obviously its best in UB, where you can easily flash it back, but you can just play this card with a small splash as well, getting yourself a free 2/2 later on in the game.

Overall, the black creatures are pretty subpar, but they are a little better than you normally expect for black. They have a lot of synergistic value with other colors and strategies as well. Don’t pick these guys early, but don’t be afraid to use them to supplement the creatures from your other colors.

Red Creatures

Red was the worst color in Innistrad and that was because its creatures were outright terrible. It had three powerful removal spells in Brimstone Volley, Geistflame, and Harvest Pyre, but the creatures were just not the kind that could go on to win a game. Red is one of the colors with few creatures, but unlike Blue, the quality of creatures is often pretty low. The key to having a good set of Red creatures is having things with a decent power and then being able to just remove every creature that gets in the way. Since every color had much better creatures than Red, it just ended up being much worse than everything else, which is a great example of why creatures are so important in limited.

As we look at the creatures from Dark Ascension, it is important to remember how bad of a position Red was in, how much ground it needs to catch up, and what kinds of holes it needs to fill. Just looking at the curve, we see that Red is weighted much more towards lower casting costs than it was in Innistrad. There are only two 2cmc Red creatures in Dark Ascension, but commons in a small set show up about 1.8x more often than commons in a large set. This means that the two 2cmc Red creatures fill the role of 3.6 2cmc Red creatures in Innistrad, which is .6 more. The biggest difference, however, is that the 2 drops from Dark Ascension are imminently more playable than their counterparts from Innistrad. Ashmouth Hound was pretty strong, though nothing amazing, but Village Ironsmith was pretty bad, and Crazed Neonate was more of a liability. Dark Ascension, however, gets Torch Fiend and Hinterland Hermit. Both have two power for two mana, both have a slight upside, and neither is a liability. They don’t force you to jump through hoops for value either. In my book, that is a dramatic difference, and if you are in Red, you’ll want to pick up as many two drops in Dark Ascension as possible.

Erdwal Ripper continues this theme of more aggressive Red creatures. Although it costs three mana, it has haste, which means it will often put pressure on your opponent the same way a two drop would. However, it is still a rather unexciting creature. Russet Wolves has the same problem. Hill Giants are fine in Innistrad, but they are nothing to get excited over. But, the good thing is that these creatures are at least not liabilities; the Red creatures in Innistrad required you to commit to bad strategies, but the ones from Dark Ascension are just mediocre. You might not get as many games with complete blowouts like you would with Crazed Neonates, Village Ironsmiths, Tormented Pariahs, or Feral Ridgewolfs, but these creatures form a much better creature base, and then they let the Red removal get the job done. These are the kinds of creatures that Red needs in order to be a good limited color.

I’ll end talking about Red by looking at its two best creatures: Forge Devil and Nearheath Stalker. Neither of these creatures are as dominating as the Blue creatures, nor do they provide as much value as the White creatures, nor are they as efficient as the Green creatures, but they perform their required functions well. Forge Devil will have plenty of targets in this format; Tragic Slip would be a powerful spell even without the Morbid rider, and Forge Devil will often get similar value. It is not an aggressive creature, but it is a two-for-one on a cheap body. Often it will kill something relevant and then trade with a Gather the Townsfolk token or maybe pick up a piece of equipment. Nearheath Stalker is Red’s best creature. In fact, it is probably Red’s best creature from either set. He does a good job attacking and blocking, he is big enough that they need to find some way to deal with him, and he gets you value in almost every case. Furthermore, he makes spells like Fling significantly more powerful.

Red didn’t get enough good creatures to make up for Innistrad. However, it did get creatures that fill the problem holes from the previous set, and most importantly it got creatures that aren’t a direct liability. All of these creatures are good enough for a maindeck, which is more than what you could say for their Innistrad counterparts. Don’t expect Red to suddenly become good, since it’s a far cry from being the best color in this set, but I would expect to be playing red much more often than I was in the past.

Green Creatures

Green was very strong in Innistrad limited, though it was undervalued at first. A large part of its strength came from the fact that its creatures were very good. Darkthicket Wolf was arguably the best common creature in the set, rubbing up right alongside Stitched Drake. Both creatures were the most format defining creatures in the set, and neither is completely replaced in Dark Ascension. But Green also had goodies like Avacyn’s Pilgrim, Ambush Viper, Orchard Spirit, Villagers of Estwald, and Festerhide Boar. The strength of those creatures was so good that simply picking efficient Green creatures alongside White removal was a strategy unto itself.

I’ll be upfront about this: Green’s creatures are worse in Dark Ascension. They are still very strong, and all of its creatures are eminently playable, but there is just no way to replace the six cards that I mentioned before. If you look at the spells, you’ll see that green took a big hit after losing Travel Preparations and Prey Upon, so not getting the same quality of creatures is going to hurt very badly when Dark Ascension is released. However, the Green creatures are still powerful, and since they are all playable, I expect green to still be one of the best choices in the format.

Like all the other colors in the set, we see a trend in Dark Ascension of a greater density of cheap lower cost creatures. We’ve got a decent one drop, three good two drops, and a powerful three drop. That is five great creatures for three or less mana, which is the same amount as was in Innistrad. However, like I mentioned before, these creatures will be showing up at much higher frequencies. Five of those cards would be like having nine good cheap creatures in Innistrad. In Innistrad, you needed to combine Green and White to get a decent number of creatures under three mana to power up your Travel Preparations, but in Dark Ascension you’ll be able to pick up several cheap green creatures and use another color for support.

The most important Green creature in Dark Ascension is Ulvenwald Bear. This guy does everything you thought Festerhide Boar would do and more. One of the biggest problems with Festerhide Boar was that it cost four mana. Because of this, it was difficult to cast a removal spell and cast Festerhide Boar in the same turn. Instead, you had to rely on making trades with your opponent’s creatures, which often meant  offering a trade that was bad for you. Festerhide Boar, however, only costs three mana which means it won’t be too hard to set up a turn 4 with Prey Upon or Dead Weight, a turn 5 with Victim of Night or Harvest Pyre, or a turn 6 with Brimstone Volley or Fires of Undeath. On top of this, there are more sacrifice outlets in Dark Ascension, which means you will be better able to turn on morbid at will. These things together means that Ulvenwald Bear will often be able to come down with morbid before combat and power up another creature so that it can get through in combat. I expect Ulvenwald Bear to be one of the most dominating creatures in the format, right alongside Nephalia Seaskite and Stormbound Geist.

Green also gets something quite interesting in this set with Young Wolf and Kessig Recluse. Both of these cards are excellent creatures at stalling out a ground game. In Innistrad, most of Green’s creatures were very good on offense, but not exceptional on defense. But with this, you’ve got two creatures that will be able to hold the ground very well. Young Wolf is probably the worst Green creature in the set, but it is still better than most of the creatures in other colors, and comparisons with Doomed Traveler are very apt. A 2/2 on the ground will often have as much impact as a 1/1 flyer in the air. Kessig Recluse will be another format defining creature in the format. A 2/3 body is significant in Innistrad, since it is a world with lots of 2/2 or 2/3 bodies, and having deathtouch means that none of those creatures will be able to attack into him. He eats almost all of the flyers in the set, and he still kills the most important ones when he blocks. Also, using him with Prey Upon will be a great way to take down even the most troublesome creatures.

The next group of green creatures are the accelerators. In Innistrad we had the always awesome Avacyn’s Pilgrim, but Dark Ascension gives us a shot of adrenaline when it comes to green mana ramping. Scorned Villager should go early and fits in every green deck, providing you with significant acceleration while also giving you a decent body. Meanwhile, Dawntreader Elk gives a 2/2 for 1G body, which is fine all by itself, but sometimes it will ramp you up to be able to cast that expensive flashback spell, or fix you for a color you need.

Finally, green gets two unexciting but efficient creatures. As I mentioned before, Somberwald Dryad’s 2/2 for 1G body is perfectly efficient all by itself, so the random benefit of Forestwalk is just gravy. Hollowhenge Beast is one of the most efficient creatures in the set. In Innistrad, we saw that 4/4s for 5 pulled their weight regardless of their other abilities, but a 5/5 for 5 is that much better. This guy will be hard to block and he powers up Prey Upon very well.

Overall, green got a pretty powerful set of creatures. Like I mentioned, those creatures are less powerful than in Innistrad, but they are still very good compared to the rest of the creatures in the set.

Conclusion

As I wrote up this article, I realized some key points about Dark Ascension’s creatures in general. First, each color ends up with a denser number of playables compared with Innistrad. While the top end of many of these creatures is lower, each color got a number of creatures  that will form a strong foundation for any archetype. Second, the average cost of common creatures in Dark Ascension is significantly lower. The Innistrad draft format was fairly fast, and the cheap, efficient creatures in GW were an important part of that. Dark Ascension makes cheaper creatures available for every color, which means that the GW decks can speed up a little, but the other decks are better equipped to handle their increased speed. Finally, each color got several tools to slow down the game. This includes Undying creatures, creatures with death triggers like Black Cat and Elgaud Inquisitor, and generally good defensive creatures like Kessig Recluse or Headless Zombie. Innistrad was a very tempo oriented format where it was difficult to build a deck that could block consistently, but Dark Ascension looks like it scales the format in the other direction, which means attrition based strategies like BG, UB, UW, or BW should gain a lot of oomph in the new set.

Hopefully my insights will help you with the release of Dark Ascension. I expect to see several shifts in the format. While WG still seems like the deck to beat, all the other decks seemed to gain a lot of ground in Dark Ascension. This means that the set will be even more complicated and archetype dependent, and you will end up playing many different color combinations with the release of Dark Ascension.