Ixalan!

Hey everybody!
It’s game day here at spalanz.com, and today I’m taking a look at the new expansion set for Magic the Gathering – hitch up your dinosaur, as we head to Ixalan!

The 76th expansion for the game, Ixalan is a plane of dinosaurs and pirates, merfolk and pseudo-Mesoamerican exploration. We’ve known the name since at least April, when some leaked alternative packaging did the rounds, and the theft of an uncut sheet of cards not long after spoiled a lot of preview season for this set, but despite these leaks, I’ve been looking forward quite a great deal to this one. Amonkhet block was really nice, and I enjoyed a lot of those cards, but somehow I didn’t feel the theme really grabbed me as much as I expected. Ixalan, however, just seems to be speaking to me on a whole new level…

The story depicts the search for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado Orazca, and its legendary artifact, the Immortal Sun. There are four distinct tribes on the plane, with a lot of tribal cards for each that make this set feel like it slots nicely into this year’s Commander products! We have the dinosaur riding warriors of the Sun Empire (Naya), fighting against the Merfolk of the River Heralds (Simic), the Vampire conquistadores of the Legion of Dusk (Orzhov), and the pirates of the Brazen Coalition (Grixis). In the middle of all of this, we have the return of Vraska, posing as a treasure hunting pirate while she attempts to recover the Immortal Sun for Nicol Bolas (in return for Guild leadership of the Golgari on Ravnica). Jace is also here, naturally, although he’s once more lost all of his memories, and so is used by Vraska and the pirates as they fight against the Legion of Dusk.

The whole notion of this pirate/vampire/dinosaur-warrior/merfolk war has really gotten me intrigued, and of course I do have a soft spot for Mesoamerican history, so the whole package just appeals to me no end. Because the art… man, the art…

Tribal is obviously a thing on Ixalan, but let’s take a look at the new (and returning) mechanics. First up is Explore, which allows you to reveal the top card from your library, and draw it if it is a land. If it isn’t, you can put a +1/+1 counter on the Exploring Creature, then put the card drawn either back on top, or into your graveyard. Enrage is a dinosaur ability that has consequences whenever the creature is dealt damage. Raid is back from Tarkir block, but with some slight differences (including as an ongoing effect), and Vehicles are back from Kaladesh. Wasn’t really expecting to see either of these so soon, especially Vehicles, though it’s always cool to see old stuff brought back. We also have double-faced cards that transform into lands, which have card frames that look like old maps. While I do like this, part of me still gets a bit annoyed when Wizards messes with the frames too much. But not enough that I’d want to quit the game or go onto an extended rant about it, of course!!

Ixalan

Dinosaurs are obviously a marquee creature type for the set, and several older Lizards are being retconned as the Dinosaur creature type, which is nice. Ixalan has also given us our first and, so far, only Trilobite, and has brought about the rules change that makes Planeswalkers Legendary now, removing the Planeswalker Uniqueness rule in favour of keeping things a little more sleek.

I’ve been planning to use the vampire cards in my Edgar Markov deck should any decent ones present themselves, anyway, but when I learnt that Merfolk were moving into blue-green for this set, it made me want to make a Merfolk deck as well! I’ve never really been as keen on Merfolk as some, but I love the Simic combination (it’s one of only two places I enjoy playing green), so it’s natural I’d be drawn there this time!

I didn’t make it down to my store for prerelease, unfortunately, but instead had a sort of mini-prerelease of my own at home. I’d decided to go into this set pretty much blind, not paying attention to anything beyond the major spoilers when they hit. However, knowing the tribal theme, I had vaguely wanted to try out that Merfolk idea if I had enough cards for it. When I discovered Deeproot Champion as my promo, I had high hopes, but in the end it was B/W Vampires that leapt out at me, and so that was the deck I built:

Creatures
Vicious Conquistador (2)
Skymarch Bloodletter
Bloodcrazed Paladin
Queen’s Bay Soldier
Bishop of the Bloodstained
Anointed Deacon
Skyblade of the Legion
Bishop’s Soldier
Inspiring Cleric
Paladin of the Bloodstained
Glorifier of Dusk

Instants & Sorceries
Costly Plunder (2)
Skulduggery (2)
Vampire’s Zeal
Rallying Roar
Queen’s Commission
Call to the Feast

Enchantments
Mark of the Vampire
Revel in Riches
Raiders’ Wake

Land
Unclaimed Territory
Swamp (8)
Plains (8)

I was going for a bit of an aggro deck, which would be bolstered by having a lot of Vampires out when Bishop of the Bloodstained arrives. However, I think I had been going for theme more than anything, and only managed to win one game with them out of the three. My regular gaming buddy made a bit of a janky red/green dinosaur thing that ended up just smashing my face, when all I could do is get out vampire tokens. Hm!

Ixalan

There are some really cool cards in Ixalan, however, and more than many recent Magic sets, this one has got me desperate to be playing more of it once again! I’ve already been looking at upgrading this to a better, 60-card deck for Standard (stay tuned for that) as well as getting some more of the better Vampire cards for my Edgar Markov Commander deck (stay tuned for that, as well!)

Overall, then, I really like this new set!

Netrunner Rotation

Android Netrunner

Last week, Fantasy Flight put up a very interesting article that explained the way that rotation is going to work for their Netrunner LCG from October, and I have to say, I was utterly fascinated by it – to the point that it’s the subject of this week’s game day blog, in fact!

For the uninitiated, rotation is the definition of an organized play environment for the game, where older sets have been moved out of the pool to prevent that pool from growing prohibitively large. For me, it’s synonymous with Magic the Gathering, where sets rotate out of Standard at set points in the year to ensure the environment is manageable for tournament play. FFG first put up an article about this in 2014, which described how Netrunner would see the first two cycles of data packs rotate out of organized play when the first pack of the eighth cycle was released. That cycle has now been announced as the Kitara cycle, and takes the game to Africa and the Sub Saharan League. As this cycle comes into play, the Genesis and Spin cycles will rotate out, meaning that none of those cards can be used in decks for organized play from this point on.

But it’s not all doom and gloom!

See, FFG are releasing a Revised Core Set, which isn’t just a core set with errata’d cards or something, but is essentially the next way to buy into the game. It doesn’t merely reprint cards from the current set, but rather includes a new mix of cards that features some from the Genesis and Spin cycles that are rotating out, meaning that you may not need to deconstruct those decks, after all!

They have released a card list for the Revised Core Set already, just to help further!

I find this somehow fascinating, and it makes me think that the game is expanding at a sensible rate. It is somewhat similar to the way that Magic works, by having a core set come along with those all-important cards, but the rotation here is so much more leisurely that it doesn’t feel like there’s going to be a mad scramble to keep up. At its smallest extent, there will be five cycles of cards that will form the current meta, which represents a good number of years with which to play these cards. I mean, Netrunner has already been out for what, five years now? That’s a five-year Standard season that allows you to really get a decent amount of play out of your card pool!

Back when they announced rotation originally, I was all for it, and I remain so. The fact that it took almost a year longer to get going than they’d initially thought notwithstanding, I think now that we’re here, and seeing how they’re handling it, I’m really impressed at what’s happening.

Will I be getting a copy of the new core set? Probably not. While I have taken part in Netrunner tournaments in the past, I don’t think it’s something I’m planning to do in the future, so it’s almost irrelevant to me. I’m really pleased to see that the game is being supported so well, however, and I’ll doubtless be buying the data packs as they come out anyway, as casual play is really all I get into these days!

No longer Standard: Kamigawa block

Hey everybody!
For today’s game day blog, I thought I’d return to Magic the Gathering, and an idea that I had a while ago to do a blog showcasing what I think is an excellent set, but a lot of folks in the meta seem to write off as worthless. Last time, I took a look at the M12 core set, and talked a little about why I thought it was a really great looking set overall. Today, I’m continuing this theme with a look at what feels like the red-headed stepchild of Magic sets: it’s time for Champions of Kamigawa!

Champions of Kamigawa

Champions of Kamigawa was released on 1 October 2004 as the thirty-third expansion for Magic the Gathering. The release came hard on the heels of Mirrodin block, which I’ll get into shortly. With a focus on feudal Japan, the cards heavily tapped into this theme, with all manner of spirits and kami decorating things, while samurai and ninjas popped up throughout the block.

The storyline was about the war between the spirits of the plane of Kamigawa and its mortal inhabitants. These Kami spirits have a particular type of magic referred to as “arcane”, which became a bit of a showcase here, while the regular mortals have cards that are more ordinary within Magic’s history.

Champions of Kamigawa made a number of changes to Magic, which I’ll go through briefly before getting to the new mechanics of the set. Firstly, the block was all about Legends. Legendary Creature was first seen on a card in this set, with every rare card being Legendary to showcase this change. Furthermore, the legend rule was changed – rather than just not being able to play two Legendary cards with the same name, now playing a Legendary card with the same name as one already on the battlefield caused both cards to go to the graveyard, essentially making them a sort of removal for themselves. (It’s important to note that this rule has since been changed again with M14). Defender also became a new evergreen mechanic in this set, replacing “this card cannot attack” on cards.

Let’s talk about new mechanics.

Kamigawa Block

First of all, then, we have Arcane spells, representative of the magic of the Kami spirits. This subtype is found on Instant and Sorcery spells, and while it does nothing by itself, some cards have the rules text “Splice onto Arcane”, followed by a cost of some kind. This allowed players to play an Arcane spell in addition to the card that had the Splice text, but keep that Arcane card in your hand for later use. Sure, your opponent would then know you had that card in your hand, but in theory it could provide a decent deterrent, to say nothing of the fact that you could potentially get multiple uses out of these things. Unfortunately, the mechanic was seen as a little bit clunky, and most often the spells weren’t even worthwhile playing once, let alone multiple times.

It remains something of an ambition of mine to make a spirit/arcane deck and make it work, but as yet, I’ve not managed to get the cards I want…

There are a lot of Spirit creatures in Kamigawa block, and many have the ability Soulshift, usually followed by a number. Soulshift allows you to return target Spirit card with converted mana cost equal to or less than the Soulshift number. This number is invariably one less than the Spirit card going to the graveyard, so they can’t recur themselves.

Again, one to try out with the Spirits deck…

Bushido X is something that I feel should be more flavourful than it ends up being. According to wikipedia, “bushido” evokes the tenets of the way of the samurai, such as compassion, honour and integrity. In the game, the mechanic gives a creature +X/+X whenever it blocks or becomes blocked. I can see the vaguely heroic sort of theme they’re going for there, but the term seems to require more than just a combat pump, you know? It’s still an interesting idea, for sure, and can lead to some interesting tactical choices for your opponent, especially if you have multiple creatures with the mechanic!

Finally, Champions of Kamigawa introduced Flip Cards to the game, which was the first time a card face was so dramatically altered (without counting the new frame design brought out in 8th Edition). These cards are essentially two different cards, one on the top and one on the bottom. When a specific condition is met, the card is flipped 180 degrees and becomes a new permanent. There are quite a few interesting rules things that go on with these flip cards – at least, interesting to geeks like me! First of all, the flip card only ever has the normal characteristics of the top portion (the right side) of the card, unless it is on the battlefield and flipped. So you can’t search for the flipped side of the card, though your opponent can name that side (he just won’t find it). Essentially the bottom portion of a flip card doesn’t exist until the flip condition is met. Once the card has been flipped, that’s it – it can never flip back up the other way. All of the flip cards in the block flip into something Legendary – creatures for Champions and Betrayers, and enchantments for Saviors. Any counters that were on the card before it was flipped will remain on it when the card is flipped, as well, as the card never leaves the battlefield.

Champions of Kamigawa has got some really great theme and flavour, and in fact has some truly all-star cards that see play in decks to this day. Perhaps most notable of all of these is Sensei’s Divining Top, although I should also mention the big dragon spirits, notably Kokusho, the Evening Star. A lot of these cards are still played in Commander, which is of course a bit of a home for all manner of crazy decks and strategies! However, the set does seem to have been otherwise forgotten.

Betrayers of Kamigawa came out on 4 February 2005, and brought along two new mechanics to the Kamigawa party, including the arrival of Ninjas on the scene! Ninjutsu appeared on Creatures with the subtype Ninja, and allowed a player to return an unblocked attacking creature to their hand and pay the associated cost to replace that creature with the Ninja creature instead. Perhaps the best marriage of theme and mechanic yet? At any rate, it’s quite a powerful mechanic, and one that a defending player should be particularly wary of when their opponent has untapped mana. Naturally, Ninjutsu appears most often in blue, so you’d be wary of such untapped mana anyway, but still! Importantly, a card that you Ninjutsu into the game was never declared as an attacker, so anything that cares about such things wouldn’t apply here.

Secondly, we have the exceptionally niche Offering ability. Five Legendary Spirits were printed in the cycle, with the ability that allowed a player to sacrifice a creature of a specific subtype (for example, Snake Offering on Patron of the Orochi), and Flash in the Legendary Spirit by paying the difference in mana costs between it and the sacrificed creature’s cost. So for example, Patron of the Orochi costs six generic mana and two green mana; if you sacrificed Orochi Eggwatcher from Champions, which costs two generic and one green, you could Flash in the big snake dude by just paying four generic and one green. Not a bad trade-off, as you could get a 7/7 for your 1/1 on turn five. There’s an interesting interaction with these Patron cards that’s worth pointing out here, too – Orochi Eggwatcher makes 1/1 Snake tokens, one of which you can sacrifice to bring out Patron of the Orochi. Tokens have no converted mana cost, so you’d have to pay the full cost of the Patron, but it would allow you to flash in a massive 7/7 which is kinda nice!

Betrayers also introduced ki counters, the accumulation of which on a card can lead to specific effects, such as flipping the flip cards printed in this set. However, the set is probably most remembered today for the card Umezawa’s Jitte, the artifact card that keeps gaining charge counters whenever its equipped creature attacks, the removal of said counter giving its equipped creature +2/+2 until end of turn. With all of the counter-abuse available in the game at large, it’s not difficult to create monsters with this thing!

Kamigawa Block

The third set of the block, Saviors of Kamigawa, came out on 3 June 2005. The set features a significant amount of cards that care about the size of your hand, referred to as the Wisdom mechanic (though the mechanic is not keyworded, so never actually appears on cards). Playing into this mechanic has been the ability of the Soratami creature type throughout the entire block. You know Tamiyo, who most recently turned up in Eldritch Moon? Well, her race, the Moonfolk, are native to Kamigawa, although Tamiyo herself didn’t appear until original Innistrad block some years later. Being a race of intellectuals, they have the ability to increase your wisdom by returning land cards to your hand to trigger abilities. It’s kinda cool to have seen this land-return going on for the whole block, but only now really mattering.

Channel is an ability word that appears on several Spirit cards that allows you to essentially treat those creature cards as instants, paying a lower mana cost and gaining a one-time effect rather than paying that card’s higher cost to have the effect on the creature itself. For example, Shinen of Flight’s Wings is a 3/3 Flying Spirit for five (four generic, one blue). You can discard the card and pay its Channel cost (one blue) to give target creature flying until end of turn. This is kinda important for the next new mechanic…

Epic cards are Sorcery cards that are essentially an attempt to create Legendary Sorcery cards. Basically, you cast the spell for its mana cost (between 6 and 10 CMC) and you cannot cast any other spells for the rest of the game. However, at the beginning of your upkeep, you get the effect of this spell again, and continue to do so for each of your upkeep phases for the rest of the game. So for example, Enduring Ideal lets you search for an enchantment card and put it into play. At the beginning of each of your subsequent turns thereafter, you’ll be putting enchantments into play for as long as the game lasts. I think it’s a pretty cool concept, but the abilities of each of these Epic cards are a little underwhelming considering the trade-off you make. In the case of Enduring Ideal, you’d need to make sure you have a lot of good stuff in place already, as you’re pretty much left with what you’ve got out to play the game. Of course, they can’t be too powerful – say you had a card that hit your opponent for direct damage, you’d probably apply too much pressure, given the amount of cards that can interact with that sort of thing. But it’s always interesting to see how these things worked out back in the day!

The last new mechanic is Sweep, an ability word that allowed you to return a number of land cards to your hand and copy an effect for each land card returned in this way. Interesting interaction with the hand-size matters abilities going on in the set, but it has only appeared on four cards in the entire history of Magic, so hardly an impactful mechanic, you know?

Saviors of Kamigawa continues the theme of the block for having one of the all-star artifact cards in the game, this time it’s Pithing Needle, which allows you to turn off the activated abilities of any card when it enters the battlefield, for as long as Pithing Needle is in place. The needle can be particularly powerful for preventing Planeswalkers from using their loyalty abilities, which are activated abilities, as well as a whole host of other things. Heck, you can prevent your opponent attaching Umezawa’s Jitte to a creature by naming it with Pithing Needle!

Interestingly, Saviors of Kamigawa also has a Legendary creature that has been banned for use in Commander due to his power level. Erayo, Soratami Ascendant is a two-cost Moonfolk Monk who, when the fourth spell of a turn has been played, flips into the Legendary Enchantment Erayo’s Essence, which just counters the first spell played by each opponent each turn. Think how crazy easy it can be to flip this guy into a counter-magic machine!

Kamigawa Block

Champions of Kamigawa block has got a lot of interesting cards among its three sets, with theme in abundance and some pretty powerful cards that are still regularly played. With such a huge number of Legendary Creatures in the set, the card type became almost diluted until it was meaningless, though can still now provide a bit of a treasure trove for Commanders. True, these cards are overwhelmingly mono-coloured, but can provide some really interesting decks.

I love the block for its oriental theme, something that we don’t often get a lot of in western culture fantasy, or at least something that we don’t get often where it’s implemented well. Here, the theme is tremendous, and really worthwhile taking the time to investigate. I’ve mentioned a few times how I want to build some decks using these cards, and most recently I’ve been considering how to upgrade my Eldritch Moon prerelease pool from those 40 cards to a proper 60 card blue/white Spirits deck that uses a lot of the fodder here. That’s still a work in progress, anyway!

Something that always saddens me about this block specifically is browsing singles online, and seeing how the huge premium commanded by those cards like Umezawa’s Jitte, Ghostly Prison, Eight and a Half Tails, Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker, etc, how it just drops to the majority of the set being less than a couple of pounds/dollars. Despite not playing Magic in the early 2000s, I’ve nevertheless managed to pick up so many Kamigawa cards because they’re just so cheap! For a deck-builder who loves theme over everything else, this block can be a paradise. Add in some Tarkir cards to bulk things out and keep that theme going, and the world’s your lobster!

It seems that a major problem for Champions was the fact that it came hard on the heels of Mirrodin block. A block that made heavy use of artifact cards, and made the horror that is Affinity a thing, Mirrodin allowed players to built incredibly powerful decks that took a lot of beating, and while this is probably best left for a future blog, suffice it to say that it was a particularly dark and difficult time to be a Magic player. Kamigawa didn’t have the same power level and, while being flavourful in and of itself, was very soon overshadowed by the amazing original Ravnica block, which will also be the subject of another blog in the future! Added to this fact, it seems that, while a lot of westerners are familiar with Japan and Japanese culture – not least from the wide consumption of the amazing Studio Ghibli films – Kamigawa block went too deeply into that well, and employed a lot of reference and theme that still felt quite alien to a lot of American and European players.

Kamigawa block itself did have a lot to offer at the time, Mirrodin notwithstanding. There are a number of stories around the internet of folks who were there for Standard and whatnot, definitely worth checking out the reddit Q&A linked in the last paragraph, and also this article from Star City Games, where MTG Hall of Fame-er Masashi Oiso discusses the infamous Gifts Ungiven control deck. While other decks did the rounds, it seems some form of blue control was king. Some interesting history there!

At any rate, that’s my look back at Kamigawa block, three sets that are no longer standard, yet well worth the experience of diving into! How do you feel about the block? Were you playing Magic back when the sets came out? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Attack on Titan

Well, Cryptozoic have been churning out quite a few Cerberus-engine games since I last took much significant notice of them! Enjoying DC as much as I do, though, I’ve not really felt the need to take too much of a look. But at a recent games night, my usual gaming buddy brought over Attack on Titan, and we gave it a whirl. Both of us are old hands at the usual Cerberus stuff, so I wasn’t expecting too much to change – boy, was I wrong!

The game is superficially the same, with a main deck of cards, a basic deck that you start out with, and a currency system based on power. However, this game is based on the anime of the same name by Hajime Isayama, and deals with the idea of humanity living behind massive walls as defense against the roaming Titans, who eat humans at will. As such, the game is set out with five districts, and cards are revealed from the main deck into each of these districts at the start of the round. This idea essentially replaces the line-up, anyway. Furthermore, there are four Archenemy Titans stacked into the deck at the start of the game, timed to appear at specific intervals – these Titans are placed into a district and must be fought before they destroy the walls. If the heroes defeat all four Titans, they win; if the Titans destroy all of the districts, or if they manage to kill three heroes, or if the main deck runs out, the heroes lose.

So it’s a co-op game, which I quite enjoy anyway, but I was especially grateful for that this time around as it was a difficult game! There are regular-style Titans throughout the main deck, as well as good stuff for the heroes to buy, and these things will also attempt to knock the walls down. At first, the game felt a little bland, as we weren’t really doing all that much, but once the first Titan showed up, followed swiftly by the level-one Archenemy Titan, the game escalated quickly. Archenemy Titans have a hit-points level that needs to be reached before they can be dealt enough damage to be defeated. To add insult to injury, they’ll also regenerate lost hit points if you can’t defeat them there and then! Brutal!

It was a really fun twist on an established formula, and one that I definitely enjoyed as a change. Co-op games are always a lot of fun, and while I wasn’t familiar with the source material, having Tony on hand (who is a massive manga fan anyway) certainly helped there. But I don’t think it’s particularly important to know the story to enjoy the game – as usual with theme, it did lead to some cool moments, such as the idea of Titans being on the outside battering walls down, and the like, but it was still a tense game without any prior knowledge.

Attack on Titan

Welcome to New Phyrexia

Hey everybody,
I’ve been thinking about doing something on the plane of New Phyrexia for a while now, as it’s one of the more fascinating aspects of Magic the Gathering lore to me. So sit back and enjoy the oil-slicked ride through metallic hell, as we take a look at what once was Mirrodin!

New Phyrexia

New Phyrexia was the 55th expansion for Magic the Gathering, released in May 2011 as the third set in the Scars of Mirrodin block. The storyline of the block is really what I want to focus on today, though I also have a deck that I’d like to share involving some of my all-time favourite cards from the set.

So, back in the day, the arch-villain of MtG lore Yawgmoth had been using the process of phyresis to cure ailments among the Thran people of Dominaria, a controversial process that earned Yawgmoth the worship of his creations, but he was declared a traitor among the Thran themselves. Yawgmoth took his knowledge to the plane of Phyrexia and refined his ideas, creating an entire kingdom of these half-dead, half-metallic things. Over time, the Phyrexians plotted to invade Dominaria and claim the plane for their own, but in this they were thwarted by the temporal bridge between Dominaria and Phyrexia being sealed.

New Phyrexia

During the Brothers’ War, Urza and Mishra inadvertently reopened this portal, allowing the Phyrexians access to Dominaria. The Phyrexians, under the leadership of the demon Gix, sided with Mishra, however their plans of invasion were once again thwarted. This pitted Urza against Phyrexia for a long conflict that eventually saw the artificial plane reduced to a smoldering ruin.

Centuries later, the golem Karn built a new plane of mechanical perfection, initially named Argentum, and left the construct Memnarch as ruler. Memnarch, however, was corrupted by a black oil from Phyrexia and transformed the plane into Mirrodin, in an attempt to become a Planeswalker like Karn. The oil was somehow sentient, and sought to rebuild Phyrexia on Mirrodin. However, rather than reproducing the original hive mind of Phyrexia, the rebuilding has influenced all five colours of mana, leading to five factions within the military conquest.

These factions are led by the Praetors, which are introduced into the game via their Legendary Creature cards: Elesh Norn, Jin-Gitaxias, Sheoldred, Urabrask and Vorinclex.

New Phyrexia

I think the Praetors are perhaps the most iconic part of the set, with pretty much all of the cards still seeing a lot of play in formats like Commander. Each of the five has a huge effect that impacts the board, often in quite an obnoxious manner:

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite – buffs your creatures while causing all of those creatures controlled by your opponents -2/-2;
Jin-Gitaxis, Core Augur – you draw cards at the end of your turn, while reducing your opponents’ hand size by seven;
Sheoldred, Whispering One – returns a creature from your graveyard at the beginning of your turn, and forces your opponents to discard theirs;
Urabrask, the Hidden – gives your creatures haste, but causes your opponents’ creatures to enter the battlefield tapped;
Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger – doubles the mana your lands produce, but causes your opponents’ lands not to tap on their next untap step.

These guys can be particularly oppressive, though obviously being creatures, they can be vulnerable.

New Phyrexia

The defining mechanic of Scars of Mirrodin block was Infect, of course – creatures with this mechanic deal damage in the form of -1/-1 counters to other creatures, and poison counters to players; if a player ever has 10 poison counters, he loses the game. While Infect had been featured on black and green creatures in Scars of Mirrodin, then white creatures in Mirrodin Besieged, it finally made it also into red and blue in New Phyrexia.

The set also included “Phyrexian mana”, coloured mana that could alternatively be paid for with 2 life. A very black effect, Phyrexian mana actually appears on 34 cards across all five colours. Additionally, we get some returning mechanics, including Proliferate, which adds another counter of a kind already present on a card or player. Which makes it the perfect partner for Infect, and brings me to my deck!

New Phyrexia

Creatures 
Butcher of Malakir
Captivating Vampire
Crimson Mage
Falkenrath Exterminator
Guul Draz Assassin (2)
Indulgent Tormentor
Malakir Bloodwitch
Massacre Wurm
Mephidross Vampire
Nirkana Cutthroat (2)
Ob Nixilis, Unshackled
Onyx Mage
Quag Vampires (3)
Rakish Heir (2)
Sheoldred, Whispering One (2)
Stromkirk Captain (2)
Vampire Hexmage (2)

Instants
Grim Affliction (2)
Uncanny Speed
Vampiric Fury (2)
Volt Charge (2)

Enchantment
Lightning Talons (2)
Raid Bombardment (2)

Land
Akoum Refuge (2)
Blackcleave Cliffs
Blood Crypt (2)
Dragonskull Summit
Lavaclaw Reaches (2)
Molten Slagheap (2)
Sulfurous Springs (2)
Swamp (6)
Mountain (6)

This deck has been evolving from something much more Phyrexian, into a more general kind of black/red punishment style of deck. I was trying to evolve it into a Modern viable deck, looking at more lower-CMC cards, and I’ve purposefully started to invest in shock lands for this reason! Sheoldred is still in charge here, of course, and rather than going a bit half-assed with some Infect creatures, I’ve instead decided to use Proliferate cards to work in tandem with the Vampire mechanic of adding +1/+1 counters when they deal damage. Proliferate will also work with the storage lands, and the level-up cards, though I’ve since removed some of these.

There are still a couple of cards that I’m thinking about swapping out, but it’s been fun to pilot so far!

Let the campaign commence!

Hey everybody!
It’s time for another game day blog here at spalanz.com, and today I wanted to talk a bit about the Arkham Horror LCG, which I’ve started to play again as part of a campaign rather than just the one-off games I had back at Christmas while I was learning the ropes. I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, as the game has been incredibly popular for months already, but I thought I’d just ramble a bit about it all, and then talk about the first game in the Night of the Zealot campaign that I had a couple of weeks ago!

Arkham Horror LCG

Deck-building
Before I go any further, I think it’s probably useful to have read my earlier blog where I talk a lot about my reactions to the game after playing through each of the core set scenarios. Back then, I was playing as Roland Banks with the starter deck suggested in the rulebook, and I didn’t feel any need to deck-build throughout the attempts. I was gaining experience, as I was trying out the campaign back then also, but the deck-building options just didn’t really do anything for me.

This time around, I’m playing different decks, headed up by Skids O’Toole and Daisy Walker. The Ex-Con and the Librarian; it’s got rom-com written all over it! Again, I’ve just mashed the ten level-0 cards from each of their possible character classes, along with ten level-0 neutral cards, to form the decks to start with. However, right from the off, I’m seeing how it can be exceptionally useful to actually deck-build here, and I’m now considering buying a second core set in order to widen my options.

The decks that are possible with the core set cards just feel very narrow, I think because we only get one copy of each class card and, to build a 30-card deck for the investigator, we need therefore to include all of those class cards. With two core sets, you could use two copies (the maximum allowed) of five cards, and refine your deck accordingly. I’m sure you don’t need me to lecture you on the art of deck-building, of course, but I think it’s worth pointing out anyway. While I’m writing this blog, I still haven’t pulled the trigger on a second core set, mainly because I’m in the middle of buying a house, but I do foresee getting it before the end of the summer, for sure.

Campaign Play
Something that I talked about at some length in my earlier blog was the idea that I didn’t want to play the core set scenarios again after the first run-through, due to the fact I knew what was happening in the story there. While this is true, and is probably the biggest factor in my not picking the game up again for the last six months, I found the game to still hold a lot of my attention despite this factor this time around.

One thing that was immediately apparent was the added benefits and disadvantages of playing with more than one investigator. For a start, the number of clues spawned at locations was doubled, meaning the game was potentially sped up that much more. However, the number of encounter cards drawn was also doubled, but as these cards were – either by accident or design – predominantly affecting the investigator who drew them, it didn’t really impact on the game overall. For example, Skids drew a card that forced him to make a skill test, then Daisy drew a card that affected the location only she was at.

Comparisons with Lord of the Rings LCG have been made all over the place, naturally, and I don’t think they’re particularly wrong, but the way the encounter deck is built with predominantly treachery effects rather than enemies means that adding more investigators usually isn’t as much a hindrance to the game as it is for the older LCG. Of course, oftentimes you do need to spend clues equal to the number of investigators to advance the act deck, leading to a nice sense of balance in the game overall.

I’m surprised at how little overall impact knowing how the story ends actually had on my enjoyment of the game this time around, however. I still managed to defeat the Ghoul Priest (mainly thanks to some very lucky cards from Skids, I have to say!) and I still opted to burn my house down – but knowing this would be coming didn’t stop me from having a good time! So that was very pleasing!

Arkham Horror LCG

The Gathering
So I’ve completed the first scenario, and both investigators managed to score six Victory points by the end of the game. Skids O’Toole has gained the company of the lovely zealot Lita Chandler, and I’ve used two of his experience points to upgrade the deck. One point went on upgrading the Leo De Luca ally, and with the second I swapped out Pickpocketing for some Extra Ammunition. With only two target cards for this in the deck, I think that’ll be one of the first things I do when I upgrade to a second core set!

Daisy didn’t seem to have as many interesting options, however. I’ve upgraded her Magnifying Glass, but that’s it. I was hoping I could get a few more Tome assets, but again, with only one core set, the pickings are slim. Of course, once I truly get underway, I should have more options from the Dunwich cards as well!

Something that I found really interesting, however, was just how much this process actually felt like a real RPG. The ability to level-up your character has, at its core, a sense of where you want that character to go. Do you choose to level-up their combat ability, or their mental attributes instead? In doing so, I feel like I made a conscious decision to refine the Skids deck into something less self-serving than the Rogue cards he starts out with make it feel. His character story tells of how he stole in order to pay for his mother’s operation, yet she died while he was in prison. There’s a noble streak to the character, and so I want to try and make something more of that, if I can, through the deck-building options. In something of a similar vein, Daisy is all about reading books, but the addition of the Mystic class to her deck allows her to actually gain knowledge from all that reading – in the form of spells. I’m considering making her something of a cleric-style character, therefore, though I need a wider card pool to choose from to do this. At any rate, I thought this was a really interesting aspect of the game, and one that I hadn’t quite expected to come across so well!

So the house has burnt down, and Skids has got four experience points and one point of mental trauma for his trouble. Daisy still has five experience points left to use, so hopefully she’ll be able to get more for them after the next scenario!

I’m hoping to write these campaign updates on a semi-regular basis, so stay tuned to see how well my daring duo get on!

The Voice of Isengard

Hey everybody!
Tuesday means just one thing here at spalanz.com, it’s game day! Today’s blog returns to Middle Earth, and the next deluxe expansion in the series of blogs I’ve been writing with my garbled thoughts on the Lord of the Rings LCG: today, we’re braving the Voice of Isengard!

The Voice of Isengard

The third deluxe expansion for Lord of the Rings LCG, The Voice of Isengard marks a bit of a turning point for me with this game. For the first three “seasons” of the game, I’d been playing fairly often, and have logged plenty of plays with all of the adventure packs up to this point. While there had been some odd moments where I’d thought my love for the game could have wavered (Watcher in the Water, I’m looking at you), I think the fourth deluxe marks a significant level of difficulty-increase, which in turn has seen me move away from the game to some degree. That’s not to say that I dislike this game by any means, and I still snap up the adventure packs and deluxe expansions upon their release. However, I find that I’m somewhat less inclined to actually sit down and play with them upon their release, and I actually have two cycles of cards that I haven’t yet played with, at the time I’m writing this.

I’ll probably come back to this point later in the blog; let’s actually take a look at the contents and the quests!

As always, there are two new heroes and a slew of new player cards in the box, as well as three new quests to play through that set up the following Ring-maker cycle. The player cards are headed up by the new Éomer and Gríma heroes, Éomer is actually pretty great, and quickly found his way into my Rohan deck as I began to re-tool it for spirit and tactics. He’s great for attacking, especially as how his ability gives him +2 attack when a character leaves play. Use an Escort from Edoras during the quest phase to buff your willpower, then he’ll leave and buff Éomer during the next attack phase – excellent! Ride to Ruin is another useful card to have if you have some cheap allies you don’t mind getting rid of! While probably not as deep as dwarves, the Rohan deck type is nevertheless rife with all manner of fantastic cards that work really well together.

The Voice of Isengard also brings the third and greatest Istari to the game: Saruman! Yes, I’m a big Saruman fan, I find him extremely compelling as a character, and had been looking forward to seeing him arrive. As the main game is set somewhere in the nebulous early part of Fellowship of the Ring, Saruman hasn’t actually fallen to evil, and so works fine as being a player card. However, he does showcase one of the new mechanics from this expansion, Doomed X. Whenever a card with this keyword enters play, each player raises his threat by X. These cards are usually quite powerful, and Saruman is definitely a prime example of this. With three willpower, five attack, four defense and four hit points for only three resources, Saruman is an exceptional ally. Furthermore, when he enters play, you get to remove a non-unique enemy or location in the staging area from the game for as long as he remains in play. Like the original Gandalf, Saruman does unfortunately leave play at the end of the round, but this effect can be incredibly useful, as you can get just enough time to set yourself up to deal with something potentially game-ending. The price is high, for sure – raising your threat by three can put you in a precarious position, so it’s not to be done lightly. But paired with some of those Valour cards from the Angmar Awakened cycle? He’s definitely got his place in decks, that’s for sure!

The encounter cards are varying degrees of awful, and most of them showcase the new Time X keyword. Whenever a card with Time X is revealed, you place resource tokens on it equal to X, and at the beginning of each refresh phase, you remove one counter. When there are no tokens left, something will happen, usually something terrible. There are also cards that remove tokens, which add to your woes! The mechanic lends a sense of urgency to the game, though, something that the designers said was a deliberate method of changing the meta, such as it is, for the game.

The Fords of Isen

The Voice of Isengard

The first scenario sees you trying to help a group of Rohirrim warriors defend the small Islet from fierce Dunlendings – more accurately, they’re protecting Gríma among them. The fact that there is a Gríma hero card in this box led to a similar situation to the Faramir business in Against the Shadow, though I must say I’ve never played with Gríma among my fellowship, so have never been too concerned by this!

The object of the quest is basically to outlast the awful encounter deck, and defeat the three stages of the quest. In addition to the Time X keyword on each quest card (the first of which can discard Gríma from play, causing you to lose at the first hurdle!) there are a significant number of effects that punish you for having cards in hand. This was another conscious decision by the designers, to combat strategies that had made it into the meta, and thematically reflects the hatred the Wild Men of Dunland have for the richer, more resourceful men of Rohan. I tend not to use too many card draw effects in my decks, but there are also a lot of mechanics in the encounter set that force you to draw cards, adding to the misery!

The Fords of Isen is a very urgent scenario, forcing you to breeze through it quickly or else die horribly, face down in the muck.

To Catch An Orc

The Voice of Isengard

The next scenario requires the players to capture the orc, Mugash, at the behest of Saruman himself. Mugash has been leading raids into the valley of Isengard, but Saruman believes he has vital intelligence about Mordor, and so wishes to question him. At the start of the scenario, you are forced to put the top 20 cards of your own deck aside – copies of Mugash’s Guard and a single copy of Mugash himself are then shuffled together, and distributed among these out-of-play player decks.

Over the course of the game, you will encounter locations with the Searches X keyword – this allows you to search through X cards of your out-of-play deck, as you try to find the leader of the Orc tribe. You also get to choose one of those cards to keep and discard the rest, while placing any enemies into the staging area. It’s an incredibly different-feeling quest, with something of a built-in timer in the form of giving you a smaller deck to start. The mechanics of finding Mugash are quite prescriptive, but overall I think they’re really effective for providing an interesting, and engaging scenario. While the encounter deck can still be quite awful, it doesn’t feel quite so bad somehow, and overall I think this is one of my favourites.

Into Fangorn

The Voice of Isengard

The final quest takes us into Fangorn Forest, and we get to see the Ents! Despite (presumably!) capturing Mugash in the last scenario, he has since escaped his bonds, and the players pursue him into the depths of Fangorn. The Forest is alive, however, and the Ents are not happy with the players’ intrusion.

This is another interesting scenario, with some very interesting mechanics. Mugash is now an Objective, and the players must capture him to win the game. If he is captured when you defeat the first stage, then you progress to the second stage and attempt to keep hold of the Orc chieftain while putting 12 progress there. If he has escaped into the encounter deck, you instead advance to stage three and remain there until you find him again, then advancing to stage two and keeping hold of him until the end. It reminds me of a few earlier scenarios, where the possibility of losing an Objective can make the game suddenly a lot more arduous.

However, the encounter deck itself is no picnic, filled as it is with the Huorn! The Ents of Fangorn have the Hinder keyword, which basically annoys the hell out of you. Rather than attacking, these enemies remove progress from the quest when they are engaged with you, and with high toughness and high wounds, these enemies are not going to be picked off quickly! Indeed, the whole quest seems designed to slow you down, while the quest cards themselves continue to make use of the Time X mechanic. It’s actually a pretty fun, thematic scenario, but my god is it disheartening to actually play through!


Each of the quests in Voice of Isengard has something different to offer, and each is highly thematic to play through. While it’s an expansion that I’d wanted for a long time, being such a fan of Saruman and this area of Middle Earth as a whole, I nevertheless found it to be a little less than satisfying, because there no longer felt like the option to just enjoy the quest, as you had to rush through or whatever. All quests in Lord of the Rings LCG have a race element to them, of course, as you attempt to outlast your threat reaching 50, but moreso than ever, we’re now being forced into a very specific play style if we want to go through these newer quests. I get that the more competitive elements of the community had been asking for this since the game released, but I do get the impression that a fundamental shift occurred somewhere here, whereby the main focus of development for Lord of the Rings LCG was no longer exploring Tolkien’s world in all of its glorious abundance, but instead on nuts-and-bolts mechanics of flipping cards over and mathematics.

I still play Lord of the Rings LCG, don’t get me wrong, and I still love it, but I don’t find myself returning to these newer quests nearly as often as I return for just one more stroll through Mirkwood or the Long Dark of Khazad-dûm.