since you have to balance the impact of the trigger against the prospect of leveling up a card that will be stronger next time (assuming you don’t get lucky enough to trigger twice).
The downside to rank-gain triggers is that if the trigger is too powerful, then it can seem like the luck of the draw is what dominates. This is my beef with Everflame Phoenix. I love the flavor of the card and I like the general leveling of “above the curve at one, as weak as you can be at two, really amazing at three” but I personally hate how swingy the rank trigger is. Even if you have ample removal your opponent can play a 0/1, gain a rank and a close-up-to-that-point game may be over.
With that in mind I was really excited, and a bit nervous, when Stone Blade shared this new cycle of rank-gain trigger creatures with me. As I read them, my nervousness faded and I was left with a single thought.
These cards are far from Everflame Phoenix. In general they have solid stats at each level that make them acceptable as draft filler (and a bit better in at least one case). Their rank-gain triggers are useful but not overwhelming. Not only does this avoid excessive luck attaching to a single card it also means that we’re going to have more interesting decisions in play.
Why? Most triggers are powerful enough that when a card is played and doesn’t trigger right away, both players are focused heavily on the question of whether it can survive. With these cards you will sometimes play them as blockers and when your opponent drops one you will sometimes let it live because making a trade elsewhere is more important than preventing the trigger. I think a game’s ability to present us with large numbers of difficult but not game-ending decisions is a huge part both of what makes it fun and skillful.
But enough of that, let’s look at the cards.
Normally these stats would say “underdrop” and indeed the Shaman is just slightly worse, stat-wise, than Grave Geist, one of my favorite underdrops. Her ability, however, gives her some added punch. One of the jobs of an underdrop is to be a credible threat that the opponent can’t ignore (or which does a bunch of damage if the opponent does ignore it). Spiritfrost Shaman’s trigger means that anywhere near the end of a rank it’s going to be pretty hard to block other creatures and take 12, 18 or 26 damage from her.
On to Metamind Overseer, or as I call him, “What Spark Bot wanted to be.” Spark Bot is the ultimate filler card – you’re never excited to play him but he can more or less get the job done so better that than a weak spell. Metamind Overseer is only slightly tweaked from the Bot’s stats (one less health at two, one more attack at three) but he has a really nice ability. Drawing cards as you gain a rank means smoother draws at what is often a critical point in the battle. It’s not end-of-the-world important to kill the Overseer but your opponent will have to make some tough decisions about how hard to work to make sure you only see five cards on your turn. (And, of course, for constructed decks he’s another Metamind that can help you combo out in and around rank changes.)
Blightskull Phantasm is the odd creature out in this cycle because if his trigger matters you can’t ignore it and otherwise you can ignore it easily (the only drawback being that many blocks that wouldn’t result in an immediate kill have to wait). Thus, it’s more in the classic mold of “If I get this in the right situation it’s going to be really good,” but with solid enough stats that you aren’t risking too much if you level it up without getting that trigger.
Last, and probably least, we have Umbraglim Mantis. Unless you have Runebark Guardian or some other way to translate health to board power, this looks like a pretty marginal card to me. The problem is that unless health is really, really important – that is, if you’re in a race and can win if only you stay alive a bit longer – it doesn’t have a big impact. The fact that it only triggers in just the right circumstances compounds this.
At level one this card is likely to be tempting. It’s a bit above average in strength, and if you can play it late you might get a nice bump in health. But then at level two it’s distinctly weak, at best trading with other level two creatures and losing to many. At level three it is truly marginal, trading with relatively few of its peers. I have a hard time believing that eight points in health will regularly be worth the cost in deck quality going forward. I’d much rather have a Lightbringer Cleric.
Of course, any six power creature has at least some potential as an underdrop, but even here it’s marginal. There are just better underdrops out there, both at level one and, significantly, at level two.
What do you think? Which is your favorite of this new cycle?