Back at the Altar

Posted in Limited Information on January 10, 2012

By Steve Sadin

The ability to get multiple uses out of a single spell is like catnip for me, so it should come as no surprise that flashback is one of my all-time favorite mechanics. I'll go out of my way to play with cards like Geistflame and Forbidden Alchemy in constructed. And if there's ever an opportunity to build a powerful flashback-based deck in Limited, like the Green-Blue Mill Yourself deck I've been gushing about for the last few weeks, it will be difficult for me to draft anything but that deck.

It might be fair to say that my love for Green-Blue Mill Yourself decks has started to border on obsession. In the past couple of weeks I've started off drafts by taking Deranged Assistant over Falkenrath Noble, Dream Twist over Bloodgift Demon, and Mulch over Instigator Gang, and I'm yet to feel even a twinge of regret.

The fact that Dark Ascension is going to hit the shelves in a matter of weeks further compels me to mill myself as much as possible during my remaining time drafting triple Innistrad. After all, who knows what types of graveyard-based strategies are going to be viable in Dark Ascension–Innistrad limited?

Altar of the Lost

Fortunately for flashback-addicts like myself, my preview card for this week makes me think I'll still be able to have a lot of fun with my graveyard, even with the addition of Dark Ascension.

Ready to see my preview card for this week?

Before I discuss some of the strategic implications of Altar of the Lost, let's take a look at some of the oh-so-vital rules clarifications associated with this flashback enabler:

  • Altar of the Lost doesn't allow you to cast spells from any other player's graveyard, although you can spend the mana it produces on such spells if something else allows you to.
  • You can spend mana produced by Altar of the Lost to cast any spell with flashback that you cast from a graveyard. You don't have to be using flashback to cast that spell, however, as long as something else is allowing you to cast it.

Another point to keep in mind is that you don't have to use the mana from Altar of the Lost on a single flashback spell. If you're playing an aggressive Green-White deck and you want to flashback two copies of Feeling of Dread on the same turn (using two Forests and an Altar of the Lost) to deliver the finishing blow to your opponent, you can do that.

Lessening the burden

Burning Vengeance | Art by Raymond Swanland

Got a blue-red Burning Vengeance deck with an abundance of flashback spells, including a couple of copies of Forbidden Alchemy? Then Altar of the Lost can be an absolutely vital component for you—enabling your "splashed" Forbidden Alchemy, helping you accelerate to them, and allowing you to flashback cards like Silent Departure without spending your entire turn to do so.

Burning Vengeance
Silent Departure

But even if you aren't playing a dedicated flashback deck—if you have a couple of copies of Forbidden Alchemy and maybe a Moan of the Unhallowed—then Altar of the Lost can still do a lot for you.

Forbidden Alchemy
Moan of the Unhallowed

The fact of the matter is that seven mana is a lot—especially for a card like Forbidden Alchemy that doesn't immediately affect your board position.

If you've already stabilized, or you and your opponent are both top-decking, then spending full turns to flashback cards shouldn't be that big of a deal. But if you've fallen behind on the board and you don't have a Blasphemous Act-type card to get you back into the game immediately, then the card advantage you're generating (at seven mana a card) might never be enough to get you back into the game.

But if you have an Altar of the Lost to help you flashback your Forbidden Alchemy, you're going to have a much easier time getting to seven mana. And if you have access to seven mana by turn five, you'll be far more likely to find the answers you need in a timely manner.

Once you've started ripping through your library with Forbidden Alchemy you should have no shortage of ways to use the mana from your Altar of the Lost, as you will have no doubt filled your graveyard with valuable flashback spells. If you aren't filling your graveyard with flashback spells after casting Forbidden Alchemy multiple times you probably didn't have enough flashback cards in your deck to justify playing Altar of the Lost in the first place.

Making the most of it

In order to justify including it in your deck, you're going to need to be able to reliably recoup the investment you make in Altar of the Lost.

Grasp of Phantoms | Art by Izzy

If Altar of the Lost allows you to flashback even a single spell that you wouldn't have been able to flashback otherwise, then from a certain perspective you will have recouped the card and the three mana you spent on Altar of the Lost before you've even gotten your second use out of it.

Grasp of Phantoms is a very difficult card to flashback. Most Limited decks play between sixteen and eighteen lands, and Grasp of Phantoms costs eight mana to use for a second time. If you're playing a sixteen-land deck, you would need to have fully half your lands in play to be able to put a second creature back on top of its owner's library.

Grasp of Phantoms

While people certainly have been known to flashback Grasp of Phantoms, there are still plenty of games of Innistrad Limited that end long before anybody gets to eight mana.

If you manage to cast an Altar of the Lost at some point during the early or middle stages of the game it will become significantly easier for you to generate the requisite eight mana to get a second use out of your Grasp of Phantoms. And just like when you flashback Forbidden Alchemy, if you've cast Grasp of Phantoms for a second time thanks to Altar of the Lost, you will (from some perspectives) be even on cards.

But don't think that Altar of the Lost is only useful in grindy control decks. If you have the right set of cards, you can also use Altar of the Lost to develop some very quick leads. Turn three Altar of the Lost, turn four Moan of the Unhallowed, turn five flashback Moan of the Unhallowed gives you 8 power to play with. If you have a removal spell—or a Silent Departure—to back up that start, then that might be all you need to win the game.

Fixing it

Even if you do get to cast Forbidden Alchemy for a second time solely because of Altar of the Lost, that alone won't be enough to justify its inclusion in your deck. However, if you're able to get a second use out of Forbidden Alchemy AND a card like Devil's Play because of Altar of the Lost, then we've got an entirely different story on our hands...

Devil's Play | Art by Austin Hsu

In Innistrad Limited, if you splashed a Devil's Play off of two Mountains, it would act as a functional reprint of Blaze. But with the aid of Altar of the Lost, you'll be able to flashback a Devil's Play anytime you draw a Mountain or a Shimmering Grotto.

Devil's Play

Similarly, you might find yourself able to sculpt your game around flashing back Army of the Damned if you have an Altar of the Lost generating mana for you.

Army of the Damned

So while you shouldn't look to play Altar of the Lost in decks that can do little more than flashback a Forbidden Alchemy and maybe a Grasp of Phantoms with the mana you're generating, if you can do something obscenely powerful—like getting a second use out of Devil's Play, making 13 zombies, or casting a never-ending string of flashback spells—then Altar of the Lost might just be the card that puts your deck over the top.

Killer applications

Out of context, it's difficult to predict how good Altar of the Lost will ultimately be in Dark Ascension–Innistrad Limited.

Altar of the Lost | Art by Daarken

In Innistrad limited, Altar of the Lost would have had very limited applications—only making its way into dedicated Burning Vengeance decks or decks with multiple copies of Forbidden Alchemy.

But even that isn't necessarily a criticism of the card.

The fact that a card has limited applications can actually work in its favor—making it easier for players who really want it to be able to pick up copies of it.

Will Altar of the Lost wind up being a role player that frequently goes 10th to 12th pick in drafts? Or will it end up being a cornerstone of some of the most powerful decks in the format?

I guess we'll just have to wait and see...

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