Onslaught Limited Review: Clerics
This is the first installment in my series looking at the cards of Onslaught for the purposes of Limited play.
The winds of change have blown in, ladies and gentlemen. As I headed to Pro Tour Boston, the white installment of this series was all but done, when Randy Buehler informed me that an eight article series would be more appropriate for Onslaught than the customary six-article series due to the importance of tribal cards in the set. The man was absolutely right.
Tribal is the all-powerful, sweeping theme of this set. It promotes deck uniformity and solidarity, bringing Limited play a little closer to Constructed. In Onslaught, it's not the random collection of good cards that will win, but the deck with the best construction. You don't play Fact or Fiction in your Sligh deck. Now, the same idea will apply to the forty card formats.
These articles are written with a booster draft bent.
A couple of things to keep in mind when reading this series: first, these are my ratings and reflect my style of play. There will be some choices you'll question, and those questions may be suitable in light of your style of play. To this end, after the series is complete, there will be a follow up looking at things I might have changed my outlook on. Second, there will be some non-tribal cards in each tribal installment. These have been placed for optimal value, but their inclusion in one tribe by no means suggests their exclusion from another: if you're drafting soldiers, I still recommend Jareth, Leonine Titan. Third, and perhaps most important, these articles are written with a booster draft bent. Sealed deck is a much slower format, so where these articles stress speed, power may take precedence in sealed deck, while cards like Akroma's Vengeance, whose true power lies in your opponent not knowing you have them, may lose value in Rochester draft.
As for the rating system, I've ranked the cards from 'best' to 'worst'. There's obviously some overlapping, depending on the contents of your deck, but that's where draft experience comes in. There's only so much you can learn here, and without applying it regularly, you'll find that these articles won't do the full job. That's not to say you should stop reading now...
With all this said, Onslaught more than any set I can remember, seems like it was designed for fun. Smash with big guys, tap five goblins to do this, turn my morph guy face up and all that. There's a lot of good in this set. Be sure to enjoy it.
These folk of the cloth hold things down. They stabilize the table let things go nowhere until they've found a suitable minion to do their killing for them. That's the attitude that forced the inclusion of cards like Dispersing Orb in this installment: All they need is a way to finish the opponent off.
If you're going to major in clerics, white-black is obviously the color combination for you, with both colors having more than their share. That means that soldiers, zombies or even beasts can be their compliment, while both wizards and birds serve capably if you want to go blue. I'd stay away from the goblins and elves on this one.
When you're drafting clerics, as with any other tribe, keep this in mind: later in the draft, there are cards in this set, like Profane Prayers, which might be very good in your deck while proving absolutely useless in everyone else's. With those cards, don't be afraid to take a slightly worse card for two reasons: a) you may be at a friendly table and get that card back. B) if one of those two cards is going to be drafted by another player, the tribal one won't help them. This should prove a deterrent to other drafters taking that card in the first place.
Jareth, Leonine Titan
Insanity, pure and simple. In a format full of seven and eight casting cost creatures, the Pit Fighters really stand out in that you get so much more than you do with those other monsters and for less mana. Jareth in particular ends the game in five turns assuming your opponent isn't gaining life or overrunning your other creatures. That's why he's in the cleric section: the holy ones can hold the opposition down, but frankly, if you have more than a couple of plains in your deck, this is your first pick.
If power's absolute form is fury unleashed, then at least in the calculating man's hands, the less-pure form embodied by control is preferable. Of all the cards in this set, none offers more control of the table than Akroma's Vengeance, allowing you to bide your time and hold back some resources while your opponent commits unknowingly. Good in times of desperation and never useless thanks to its cycling ability, this is one of those cards you slam down on the table as your first pick before looking at the other fourteen.
They don't just make any card the Prerelease foil. Silent Specter is a monster, with its 4/4 flying hide more than good enough on its own, but when you throw in its special ability, you have a card that will win a lot of games. There isn't a lot to take over this thing, quiet or not.
Don't be fooled by this low ranking, you take this thing first, just like those listed before it. Glarecaster, once active, is obscene, either providing the ultimate evasion creature or holding off defenses indefinitely. By virtue of its size and activation cost, Glarecaster is a little more fragile than those creatures listed above it here, but once you've got it in the clear, its just as unstoppable.
Sigil of the New Dawn
Slow at the beginning, this thing becomes insane later on. Think about it: nothing ever dies. All you need is one threat, one real threat, and that thing becomes relentless, coming back, again and again, until your opponent has no more ways to deal with it. Then the game ends. In this case, that's a good thing.
As annoying as 4/4 creatures are, they become a lot worse if your opponent can bring one back to their hand the turn you've finally dealt with it. Gangrenous Goliath, unlike most self-reanimating creatures, can see its ability utilized at any time, not just during upkeep, and the truth is it just isn't that hard to get three clerics into play. 4/4 may not seem that large in a field of Baloths, but trust me: it's big enough.
I love this card for more reasons than there's space for here, but the quick run down: serves as a finisher, getting your guys past the named color's defenders. Cycles in case of uselessness. Protects your creatures from kill. Protects your creatures in combat, allowing you to take a few of theirs. It's cheap. It's easy to cast. It's a great card. Pick it early.
In a format where the generic 2/2 for three mana is king, this thing comes with a massive bonus. The Reanimator in and of itself provides card advantage, acting like Penumbra Bobcat in that it leaves a token version of itself in play after it dies, but the Bobcat didn't make that happen with other creatures too. This guy does. Get him in play once and you'll see just how annoying that is for your opponents.
Fat pants just got fatter. "Pants" was the term used to describe enchant creature cards that enhanced power and toughness a few years back, and these pants might be the best of the bunch. That's because this format has no common bounce and no common burn spells that deal enough to kill anything wearing these things. I know we've all been trained to think of enchant creatures as risky wells of card disadvantage, but this time around its going to be a little different.
Another quiet powerhouse. Doomed Necromancer may not look like all that much, but in a format with some ridiculously powerful creatures, all you have to do is get one into the graveyard for this thing to wreak havoc. Throw in the possibility of gaining card advantage through stack tricks before activation and the fact your opponent must play around every creature in your yard until activation and you have a very annoying critter.
Surprised to see a 3/3 flyer this low on the list? Well, here's the deal: In a format where using every mana optimally is important and creatures are bigger than big, 3/3 flyers just aren't quite what they used to be. Don't get me wrong, this is still a good card, but where I'd have been content with Aven Windreader as a first or second pick in Odyssey draft, I'm wanting this thing fourth or fifth. You'll see what I mean when your opponent puts something a lot bigger down on the same turn as you cast the Soulgazer.
I really like this card, even at five mana. The Defender makes most of your cleric-army really difficult to get around and hard to block, rendering gang blocks especially ineffective, not to mention cards like Sparksmith and Shock that try to eliminate your creatures through quick bursts of direct damage. Yes, five mana for a 3/3 is expensive, but that's okay: you're paying for quality.
Syphon Soul is officially crap. Sure, it costs a mana less, but it doesn't attack for two or allow for mass life drainage like this guy does. Cabal Archon is a powerful little cleric, taking the defense-minded creatures from this defense-minded deck and exploiting their more aggressive sides. You want a finisher? You've got one.
This is a tough one, but 5 life just seems like too low a threshold to feel safe upon. That said, if you have good control of your life total, you can definitely turn this into major card advantage. A potential game winner and potential dud, keep in mind that if you're at low enough life, you can mana burn into range to draw the card. I will say it seems like it'll be pretty tough to kill someone with this in play.
This card is strong, yet because of its nature, it goes pretty late. Like Sparksmith, this a card that can stand on its own, but unlike its red cousin, with numbers it always gets better, protecting your other guys, and in doing so, protecting you. Again, if it's going to be really strong for you, it won't be for anyone else, so if there's something that's more generally playable, you may want to consider passing this.
In a format lacking in the kill department, the cleric deck gets a powerful spell capable of dealing with small to midsize creatures very effectively with the possibility of taking out a big guy in the late game. Keep in mind, this card will be useless to all but maybe one other player on the table, and that means you'll want to get this later in the pack.
Tricks are good. They give you the chance to outplay lesser opponents and outmaneuver greater ones. Inspirit will make almost any creature you have capable of untapping and blocking almost any non-evasion creature in your opponent's arsenal, offering the option of a second use of a tap ability at the same time. Alternatively, you can use it to charge up an attacker of your own. That's a lot of utility for three mana. I don't think you can have enough of these.
Better suited to Constructed, the Believer's ability won't apply itself all that much here, with most of your important spells targeting creatures instead of players. That said, you do have a 2/2 cleric for here, giving your mana curve concerns a rest, so it's definitely a solid card, and hey, who knows: maybe it'll be in play and your opponent will have three Searing Flesh in hand.
The 'Ones' and their eventual draft value depend completely on the contents of your draft to that point. I don't think starting your draft with one and building around it is the way to go, but if your draft is underway and you've chose your tribes and you happen to see the correct 'One', you should end up pretty happy that you did. With the Clerics specializing in hanging around, this is one of the Ones that can get pretty big. Throw in a strong special ability and you have a pretty good card.
Land Tax on a stick. That's what people were saying about the Wayfarer when they first saw it, but unfortunately, while still good, it isn't quite that good. In a format where you're wanting to race, the Wayfarer puts you two mana behind your opponent: one for activation and one to ensure activation's possibility. That's a lot of time to give up for a little card advantage when time is everything. I'll definitely play it, but I wouldn't pick it too high.
I love this card because of all the little ways it can be helpful; your creature's about to trade? Get a little card advantage. They've dealt with your unkillable bomb? Get another chance to draw it. Your opponent has one blocker holding you back from victory? Not anymore. Oblation is the card that I want the player across the table to open; getting it fifth will make me happy.
Very powerful, yes, but this thing is slow. I mean, four mana and a permanent for each use? That's not the way to win races. If you're going to play this card, you'd better be more than capable of stabilizing the table, and having a little discard to use with it wouldn't hurt.
Of all the lords, this one is the least appealing to me. The clerics were built in such a way that containment shouldn't be too difficult, meaning this thing will likely get active eventually if you stick to your tribal lines, but gaining life doesn't solve the problem of finding a way to kill your opponent, and no, playing 43 cards is not an acceptable solution. The Prophet will definitely make your cleric decks, obviously, but I'm just hoping to get it sixth or seventh instead of second or third.
An interesting little card, the Hunter, like all morph creatures, is never awful, and at the same time brings with it the possibility of the fluke win. Simple fact is that in Limited, decks are inconsistent enough that sometimes spells won't get cast before turn four. If that's the case when you play this thing on turn two, your opponent's going to be in a lot of trouble.
Another morpher, the Cleric offers you a little more in the later stages of the game with the added bonus of being a potential powerhouse in the mirror match. Remember, your own clerics won't be able to target this 4/2 either, so be careful with turning it over too quickly.
When that seemingly innocent 2/2 flips over, an otherwise unexciting ability can really bash some faces in. The Healer's morph cost really is very good for what it might do, usually making the difference when trying to help your big guys get through combat intact. It's the surprise value that really does it here, so I wouldn't be casting this face up too often.
I'm not entirely convinced by this card the way some players seem to be, so it may be a little low here. Simply, Sandskin is never all good, either creating the impenetrable defender when used on an opposing attacker or making your newfound defender useless as an attacking creature. Sandskin is probably best on one of your own creatures, preferably one who won't be attacking too often anyway, and is main deck viable, but I won't be forced to that too often as I won't pick it as high as most.
Cover of Darkness
Fear is a pretty powerful ability when applied en masse. The Cover is a cleric card primarily because this is the deck that will slow things enough to use this to devastating effect, while at the same time, there are a lot of zombies already sporting fear and a lot of beasts that will run right over anything in their path anyways. Would be rated a lot higher in a format without Dirge of Dread.
Much like Headhunter, the Reaper is capable of wrecking an opponent early in the game, but the fact it costs three instead of two is huge in that department. The result of this? More often than not, you'll end up trading morph creature for morph creature if you keep attacking, and if that doesn't happen, you'll get to do 8-10 points of damage for one hit. Of course, that hit will cost you five mana...
The similarities to Ebonblade Reaper here are pretty apparent: low p/t to casting cost ratio, powerful 'when it deals damage' ability and a very expensive morph cost to keep such things in the dark. Thing is, given the choice between the two abilities, I'll take killing my opponent over killing their creature, so the Reaper gets the nod in this somewhat weak battle.
There aren't enough enchantments in this format that I'd expect this ability to get used very often, but morph is good, and as a result, this guy could trade for Shock. Any card that trades one for one with a higher draft pick is good: As a bonus, maybe you'll get to take out an enchantment in addition to all that.
Protection from goblins may prove useful against two other decks at the table, making Foothill Guide's special ability less than thrilling, but again, it morphs, and before it does, your opponent has to worry about what it might be capable of doing, and that means they'll use resources on it. Power to them.
A great sideboard card, I don't want this thing in my main deck; it's just too cumbersome. The ability is powerful and can win the race, but there will be other games, or more importantly, certain match ups, where Righteous Cause just won't do enough to warrant main deck inclusion. I'm not saying that putting it in your initial forty would be the end of the world, just that you should hope to have something better.
Two powerful abilities, but man do you have to pay for them. Like six mana for a 2/3 creature isn't enough, you need the help of other creatures to utilize this guy. Fortunately, once the engine gets going, it can be dominant. It's still a stretch for most main decks, but hey, who knows, it may just win you a game or two.
Disciple of Malice
The Disciples have always been playable in an unspectacular way, more often than not cycling for generic mana instead of actually seeing play. This thing will be a real annoyance to soldier decks though.
While either ability has promise, it's the black mana ability, draining your opponent's life points, that really makes this card interesting. You can hold off on using this until stack tricks manifest themselves, or you can start racing your opponent if you have them on low enough life to make that strategy viable, but the real power in this card is the threat of your life total fluctuating in either direction, and the difficulty of doing the math as a result. Remember, a card like this will only prove useful in maybe one other deck at the table, so don't be afraid to pass it if you see it 3rd or 4th in the hopes of getting it the second time around.
Crown of Awe
One of my favorite sideboard cards in the format, I'd rather leave it there than main deck it, but even that drastic measure may show itself to be viable if the pattern suggesting that every deck must have either black or red continues to show itself. There are weaknesses: morph creatures are colorless and black's fear creatures won't be stopped by cards such as this, but it can still be a wrecking ball, ensuring that at least one kill spell is negated. Make sure you get one or two of them.
Disciple of Grace
Early intelligence says that more often than not, if you aren't playing either black or red in this format, you may be in trouble due to the lack of creature control in the other colors, so this should be really good half the time, right? Not really. With morph creatures being colorless and so many creatures having fear, the Disciple won't be doing nearly as much blocking as you'd like. Still playable because of its cycling ability, I wouldn't be getting too excited about running it.
Cycling is good. No card with it is ever completely useless, and here we have a card that gives you a little bonus. Two life may not seem like a lot, but it comes at no cost other than two mana: no card included. Throw in the fact that in times of desperation you can go for the full six life in trying to win the race and you have a card you shouldn't be picking high, but which can and will make more decks than you might think.
Remember Nantuko Disciple? Well, the good news is that it got bigger, harder to kill and lost the activation cost. Unfortunately, there's a whole lot of bad news to go with the good, enough to leave this card barely playable and preferably not so. It's simple math really: two more mana minus most of the versatility of the Disciple equals a card you'll want in your sideboard, sorry to shatter illusions.
A good card to have in the board, but the environment definitely doesn't warrant main deck inclusion. Get one for the board and bring it in when you see the good targets.
If I could be assured I'd be casting this turn five against opponents with four- five- and six-cc creatures in hand every game, I'd be pretty pleased with that, but outside of that situation, Head Games won't be doing enough for you to justify the casting cost.
Circle of Solace
It looks really good at first, right? Everyone's going tribal, so it must be strong... except that morph creatures don't have colors, everyone has off-tribal critters, it's expensive to use and expensive to cast and a little too defensive. It just doesn't do the job a CoP: Red or something similar would.
While playable, if the Maneuvers makes your main deck, you're in trouble. Simple fact is that four is a LOT of mana to pay for this effect, especially considering it doesn't augment all of your creatures and may potentially have to do so to your opponent's. Too bad too... this ability could be pretty good with a cheaper cost.
While not a 'good card' by any standard, if you need one or two more playables for your deck, you could do worse. Syphon Mind, while slow and moderately powered for the one-on-one game, nets you a little card advantage. That said, I wouldn't be too happy about playing it if I were you.
It has one ability of almost no use, one ability specific to the cleric deck and one ability specific to being used AGAINST the cleric deck. In other words, as a main deck card, it doesn't really do enough game one. Likely the weakest of the new charms.
A sideboard card of some merit, the Cleric is this low because Demystify is usually preferable. At the same time, if you see one floating around 11th-13th, grab it. Demystify may never come, and there are decks against which this little one might be better against.
I highly recommend the writings of Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar and Anthony Alongi if you want this card to be more useful than you'll find it to be in Limited play. Just doesn't do enough unfortunately.
Want to deck your opponents? Here's a way to do it: let the game pile up and up and up, and when you're both down to a couple of cards in library, cast Reminisce. Game over. Unfortunately, it doesn't really seem to do much before turn thirty-one.
Words of Worship
While definitely not main deck material, this card offers an interesting decking mechanism should you arrive at the conclusion that your match might come to that. The clerics are very good at stabilizing the table against conventionally sized creatures and hanging around against those decks without bombs, so this could prove to be a sideboard option. Very rarely.
Words of Wind
Wind huh? Thought I smelled something…
Wheel and Deal
That it's a cantrip brings it close to playability. All it needs is to force pigs to fly and you could put it in every deck.