Magic: the Gathering – Introduction and Top 5 Cards of Dark Ascension

Hello everyone, MarquisMark here. I’ve been asked to write for this promising young blog, so over the next while I’ll be bringing you some highlights from the wide world of Magic: the Gathering. This will mean reviews and insight about new sets, cards, and decks but also, ideally, I’ll be able to post news and updates as it relates to Magic on the local level.
I’ll also hopefully be bringing some news and reviews about games and gaming generally as well.
Introductions complete, I now have some “dark” business to discuss: the newest Magic expansion and second set of the Innistrad block, Dark Ascension, which was released on Friday. I’ve included a synopsis to bring newcomers to the terrifying world of Innistrad up to speed, and then I have compiled a list of my top five cards from Dark Ascension. Feel free to skip the intro if you’re already familiar with Innistrad and its monstrous denizens.

The newest expansion to the continually growing universe of Magic: the Gathering, Innistrad is a horror-themed world filled with spirits, zombies, vampires, werewolves, and the humans terrorized by these creatures of the night. From a flavour perspective, this means the set contains familiar horror tropes, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, and that angry mob of townsfolk wielding torches and pitchforks, which have been adapted into new cards with interesting new gameplay elements. What is particularly noteworthy about Innistrad is that it is the first Magic set to contain double-faced cards. These are cards with no traditional Magic back, but instead with two faces representing different game states of the same card. When a certain gameplay condition is reached, these cards flip over to represent a transformation from one state to the other. The most common type of double-faced card, and perhaps the easiest to explain, is werewolf creature cards. These cards featured human creatures that could transform into tougher, more powerful werewolf creatures.
There was a lot of initial controversy when the double-sided cards were first announced, as concerns arose about how they would be integrated into sanctioned tournament play, and whether the mechanic would prove cumbersome and obnoxious, even during casual play. These complaints died down shortly after the set was released, as Wizards of the Coast implemented measures to ease the transition into a world with double-faced cards, and it seemed as though flipping cards was ultimately more fun for players than a bother for them.
Other mechanics found in Innistrad include the keyword “morbid”, which gives a card a more potent effect if it is played following a creature dying on a given turn, and as well the return of the keyword “flashback”, originally found in the Odyssey expansion, which allows instant and sorcery spells to be cast from the graveyard for their flashback costs.
Dark Ascension brings even more horror to the world of Innistrad. A smaller expansion containing 158 cards, Dark Ascension introduces some new mechanics and abilities, including the “fateful hour” mechanic which gives a bonus to creatures or spells where the player casting them has 5 or less life, and the seemingly tournament worthy keyword ability “undying”, which allows a creature that is killed to immediately return to play with an additional +1/+1 counter on it, provided it did not have such a counter on it when it died.
Initial impressions seem to indicate that some of the stronger undying cards will be Constructed playable, as all of a sudden the familiar complaint of “it dies to [insert removal spell]” no longer seems to apply.
So without further adieu, let’s have a look at what I feel are the top five new cards from Dark Ascension. Opinions throughout the Magic community will likely differ on what cards will mean the most for a given tournament or casual format, but I feel these cards are representative of the best this new set has to offer. With that disclaimer in mind, onto the cards!

5.) Faithless Looting

It is strange to think that what might be the best card drawing spell in Standard isn’t blue, but it’s stranger still that it would be found amongst the red cards of Dark Ascension. While first glancing at Faithless Looting you might think that having to discard two cards means that Faithless Looting really doesn’t put you that far ahead of your opponent. However, not only does this card let you sculpt what your hand looks like early, it also helps you put some worthwhile cards into your graveyard. With reanimation strategies abound, it wouldn’t hurt to dump a couple of big creatures into the ‘yard for you so you can then raise them from the dead much earlier than you could ever cast them. Chucking a few flashback cards isn’t bad either. Oh, and speaking of flashback, there’s certainly nothing wrong with being able faithlessly loot again two turns later. Along with its Innistrad cousin Desperate Ravings, this card lets red mages to do a lot more than just burn your face off.

4.) Gravecrawler

Gravecrawler has been touted as the card that was needed to make a dedicated zombie deck a reality. Thematically, the fact that this guy just keeps coming back as long as he’s got a zombie pal in play is flavourful as hell. From a gameplay perspective, this guy will keep coming back for more. He is also another example of a card you don’t mind discarding from Faithless Looting, or to fuel Zombie Infestation. With Secrets of the Dead in play, playing Gravecrawler out of the yard makes him a one mana card draw spell that also puts a 2/1 creature in play. This card seems like an ideal brother to Diregraf Ghoul and fellow Dark Ascension rare Geralf’s Messenger in a mono-black zombie aggro deck, but don’t be surprised if some cunning blue mages put him to work to do some broken things as well.

3.) Huntmaster of the Fells / Ravager of the Fells

 Is Huntmaster of the Fells the card that pushes a dedicated werewolf deck into some form of playability? Maybe. But even outside of the tribal possibilities, this guy can and will be a beating. Four mana for four power worth of creatures is good, and gaining a couple points of life isn’t shabby, but when this guy transforms into Ravager of the Fells all of a sudden you’ve got a 4/4 trampler, you’ve still got your 2/2 wolf, and you basically get the equivalent of a couple of free burn spells, all at a more than respectable cost. It’s hard to deal with this creature because even getting him to transform back just means another wolf and two life. On his own this is pretty good, but in some kind of red/green aggressive deck, it really puts pressure on your opponent in the mid/late game. As for the early game…

2.) Strangleroot Geist

This. Guy. Beats. Down. Probably my favourite card in the set, Strangleroot Geist is a 100% purebred aggro juggernaut, and a great example of how powerful the undying mechanic really is. It dodges almost every kind of removal, and when it does get taken out it bites back for 3 immediately. Combined with haste, it will be very hard for your opponents to keep you from attacking their life totals very very quickly. Undying will also make this card popular in Birthing Pod decks; when you sacrifice it to get yourself a three drop, it sticks around and gets better besides. Most likely, though, you will see this card played in decks with plenty of Forests, along with Dungrove Elder, Thrun, or even the new Dark Ascension mythic rare Vorapede (also with undying!) where the plan will be to crush you under the weight of big, bad green guys.

1.) Sorin, Lord of Innistrad

Ah yes, what would a new set be without its signature chase rare planeswalker. Sorin is currently going for around $50-60, but whether it is actually worth that kind of coin is not quite clear. What is clear about this Lord of Innistrad is that he is a planeswalker crying for a home in a white/black tokens deck along with new flying spirit generator Lingering Souls (which deserves an honourable mention for top cards in the set by making four 1/1 fliers for a total of 5 mana). Sorin’s +1 ability allows him to defend himself by making a little 1/1 vampire friend to protect him, but his true value lies, arguably, in the creation of permanent +1/+0 anthem effects with his -2 emblem ability. The fact that this power bonus cannot ever be removed regardless of what happens to Sorin himself makes it quite powerful for decks that want to get in with a large amount of token creatures. His ultimate isn’t anything to sneeze at either.
There is a concern that the new Sorin, like a certain overpowered blue planeswalker before him, will carry a ridiculously high price tag long after his release. As mythic rares like Sorin only appear in one of every eight or so packs, they are much rarer than normal Dark Ascension rares. Because there is only one pack of Dark Ascension in Innistrad draft, along with the fact that the final set in Innistrad block, Avacyn Restored, will have its own limited format, there will not be a lot of Dark Ascension packs getting cracked, and as such there won’t be too many copies of Sorin floating around, even months from now. Supply and demand would dictate that if it is seeing a lot of Constructed play, a mythic rare will stay high in cost. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like the Lord of Innistrad is going to wreak as much havoc as that jerk of a Mind Sculptor did last year, and as such, his cost will hopefully decrease for those of us wanting to give that white/black tokens idea a spin without having to break the bank.
As the set was only officially released Friday past, it remains to be seen how these and other cards from Dark Ascension will affect tournament play, but results from the Star City Games Open in Richmond, Virginia this weekend will be a helpful early indicator, as well as at the Pro Tour event in Honolulu next weekend, where some of the greatest deckbuilders and players will be on hand attempting to break the Standard format and claim some of the thousands of dollars in prize money.
Live coverage of the Pro Tour will be extensive and will start next Friday, so if you are so inclined head over to Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering page here and check out the action for yourself.


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