Are You the Beastmaster?

Posted in Serious Fun on September 22, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

By now, you've had a few weeks to explore the world of Zendikar. You've no doubt seen that it's the kind of place where the land itself holds secrets both perilous and priceless. It's beautiful and treacherous, bountiful and bizarre, and definitely not for the faint of heart.

To reap the rewards of Zendikar, as you've heard, groups of brave adventurers ally together for mutual protection and venture out into the wilds. They have to contend with dangerous traps, vicious creatures, strange relics, and the hazards of Zendikar itself to claim their rewards.

Like I said two weeks ago .... They go on quests.

Now, two weeks into previews, we've seen a lot of Zendikar's quests, and most of them go about how you'd expect. You see quests all over the place in fiction and games, ranging from the epic (destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, breaking the power of the Dark Lord forever) to the forgettable (kill ten yetis and bring back their snouts or something).

Some quests are undertaken for glory, some to satisfy a personal grudge, and some because, well, somebody's got to save the world. But most of the quests of Zendikar hearken back to a specific kind of fictional adventure: the quest for treasure. This is the search for the pirate's loot. This is raiding the dragon's hoard (which the dragon, of course, stole in the first place). This is venturing out into some wild place to find something hidden, valuable, and possibly dangerous.

Zendikar's common and uncommon quests, as you may have guessed from the Visual Spoiler, are all one-shot, "go there and get something" sorts of undertakings. There's a cycle of five common "Expeditions," with landfall triggers that represent exploring for some hidden locale and uncovering its secrets, be they lost necromantic rites or entirely new sources of mana.

Soul Stair Expedition
Khalni Heart Expedition

There's also a cycle of five uncommons that have "Quest" in their name. They have different quest conditions, representing some more specific progress toward a goal. You might gather corpses to create a Zombie Giant on the Quest for the Gravelord, or give up what you know to rediscover what you have lost on the Quest for Ancient Secrets.

Quest for the Gravelord
Quest for Ancient Secrets

You'll notice that all of these Expeditions and Quests require that you sacrifice them to use them. You can't just keep coming back to the Soul Stair to load up on necromancy, and there are only so many Ancient Secrets to discover.

But there's also a cycle of five rare quests that don't go away when you use them. Rather than provide you with some finite quantity of treasure or knowledge to bring home, they give you access to a whole new source of power, a transformation that persists even after you go home and head off on your next adventure. They are the Ascensions.

Luminarch Ascension
Pyromancer Ascension

With the Ascensions, you're not just going somewhere or recovering something. You're becoming something, ascending to the status of Luminarch, or Pyromancer ... or Beastmaster.

Beastmaster Ascension

(What do you become when you complete the blue and black Ascensions? We'll see ... but not today!)

Two weeks ago, I pointed out that Luminarch Ascension rewards you for not losing life, something you were probably planning on anyway. But, for me at least, Beastmaster Ascension hits that note even harder. So I have a lot of creatures. Naturally, I want them to be huge. And what do I have to do to get them huge?

I have to attack with them? Really?

I mean, sure, yeah, seven times is a lot, but seriously, that is what they are there for. That is what creatures do. And they do it a lot better when they're getting +5/+5 from the Beastmaster who summoned them.

Becoming the Beastmaster

So the first thing we're going to want to do with Beastmaster Ascension after we've got it onto the battlefield is attack with creatures a total of seven times. Now, it's worth noting what that doesn't mean. It doesn't mean seven attack phases, and it doesn't mean seven separate creatures have to attack. It usually means I need to perform the action of turning a creature sideways to attack (or sliding it forward ominously, if it has vigilance) a total of seven times, because each time I do that, Beastmaster Ascension gets a counter.

(Note, however, that putting a creature onto the battlefield tapped and attacking does not count as a creature you control having attacked—weird, but logical in a way, given that those creatures came into being already in the act of attacking. That means that Militia's Pride, Yore-Tiller Nephilim, and creatures with ninjutsu will not quite do what you want them to here.)

There are other options, of course. Clockspinning. Gilder Bairn. Doubling Season. But ... well, I'm more used to using cards like that to boost things that are awesome anyway, or avoid doing things I don't want to do. Saproling Burst, Helix Pinnacle, Dragon Broodmother, even Luminarch Ascension—they're well worth doubling up on. But when a card like Beastmaster Ascension is asking me to do something easy that I already want to do, why try to cheat it? That would be like sneaking candy into the chocolate factory.

So let's do this the honest way and start with some good, old-fashioned attacking. For that, we're going to need, well, creatures, and any creatures will do. If we cast a creature on turn one, a creature on turn two, Beastmaster Ascension on turn three, and another creature on turn four, and attack with everything each turn, we'll finish our quest when we attack on turn five. Granted, it'll rarely go that way, but it's a good baseline.

Some decks, naturally, will have an easier time getting those seven attacks in than others, and there are some cards that will help you on your quest. The cool thing is that decks that are best poised to complete the Beastmaster Ascension will be well poised to take advantage of its bonus as well.

To help power up the Ascension, you might just pack your deck with cheap creatures so you can get started early. On top of that, I'm drawn to creatures with haste, like Boggart Ram-Gang or Giant Solifuge, that can get in there that much sooner. And cards that put multiple creatures onto the battlefield, especially on the cheap, are gravy too—think Patagia Viper, Scatter the Seeds, or Dragon Fodder.

Boggart Ram-Gang
Dragon Fodder

The best of both worlds there is Bloodbraid Elf. If everything that costs less than four in your deck is either a hasty creature or Beastmaster Ascension, a turn-four Bloodbraid Elf is a sweet deal, either finding your Ascension or letting you slam an extra counter on it right away.

Bloodbraid Elf

Searching Gatherer for creatures with haste also led me to suspend, which grants haste to creatures that have it when they come out of exile. If you spend your first few turns suspending things like Durkwood Baloth, Giant Dustwasp, or Errant Ephemeron, Beastmaster Ascension might be waiting for them when they hit the battlefield.

Another way to speed up your Ascension is to break the general rule that you only get to attack once each turn. This could mean Relentless Assault or Waves of Aggression, or something weirder like Breath of Fury. In a more specialized deck, it could mean Godo, Bandit Warlord, particularly if you've got some loyal Samurai on the field and, oh, say, a Lightning Greaves lurking in your deck.

Waves of Aggression
Godo, Bandit Warlord

Of course, in the lethal and unforgiving world of your average friendly multiplayer game, throwing your creatures around the board willy-nilly is hardly good for their life expectancy. After the first few turns, you can expect the board to gum up with potentially lethal blockers—and after you ascend to beastmastery, you can bet that folks will aim some removal at your team (or at the Ascension, but we can deal with that later).

One cool thing to note here is that when you cross that seven-counter finish line, your creatures get the bonus immediately. That means that if you're stalled out in the face of scary blockers but have enough creatures to get to seven counters, you can throw your creatures out there, (relatively) secure in the knowledge that they'll be plowing into any potential blockers with their musculature significantly enhanced.

Creatures that are tough to block will be able to keep getting in there even after things gum up. And the creatures don't actually need to do any good when they attack, so even a simple Ornithopter will do. And that Birds of Paradise that powered out a turn-two Beastmaster Ascension can get in there for 0, looking forward to the turn when it beefs up into a 5/6 flyer.

Mastering the Beast

Once you've completed your quest and become the Beastmaster, any creature you control becomes a force to be reckoned with. I've written before about just how much +5/+5 is. When it's just numbers in a text box it's easy to underestimate, but when your Saprolings and Goblin tokens weigh in at 6/6 and your creatures scale up from there, it gets pretty gross.

Obviously, the more creatures you have, the more creatures will get +5/+5. That's pretty convenient, seeing as the more creatures you have, the more creatures you can throw around the board to power up the Ascension in the first place. So just around the time when your cheap, aggressive creatures are getting outclassed by big bruisers, the Charles Atlas bodybuilding kit you sent away for arrives and tips the scales back your way.

So you'll want lots of creatures then. Or at least, I will. You do what you want. Seeing a green card that rewards me for having creatures, I immediately think of thallids and their attendant Saprolings, but they might be a little on the slow side.

If I'm going to go tribal, I'm more excited about Goblins, who not only have a thing for making lots of tokens, but also have a tendency to grant haste—which is, as I mentioned above, a good thing here. The tokens from Dragon Fodder, Mogg War Marshal, Siege-Gang Commander, and so on, can get backup from Goblin Chieftain, Goblin Warchief, and Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician, among others. Goblin Assault is awesome here, because it gives you an endless stream of attackers and you don't really care about its "drawback"—and post-Ascension, that free creature each turn will be a 6/6. And while it's a little weird to mix green into a Goblin deck, there are a surprisingly large number of green Goblins, including Boggart Ram-Gang, Jund Hackblade, Hungry Spriggan, and Tattermunge Witch, which will reward you, or at least not penalize you, for running Forests alongside your Mountains.

Goblin Chieftain
Goblin Assault

Hungry Spriggan is not only a green Goblin, but also gets a special mention as one of the few cheap creatures with trample. Others include Llanowar Elite, Kavu Predator, and Scab-Clan Mauler, and they all look a lot cooler with a nice +5/+5. (And I love Kavu Predator in multiplayer anyway. Casting Fiery Justice to kill one (or more!) player's creatures and pumping up my Kavu Predator to attack another player, all while giving somebody else entirely some life to stay on their good side, is a rare case of win / win / win.)

Oh, one word of caution: losing that Ascension midcombat would turn out poorly, so you might want to consider something like Privileged Position or Greater Auramancy to keep the enchantment itself safe. Or you could just figure out who has the Naturalizes and stay on their good side. That works too.

And unlike Luminarch Ascension, which you only ever really need one of, Beastmaster Ascension works fine in multiples. Turns out you can just keep going up. Once you've got the first one powered up and you're crashing in with enormous creatures, it'll be easier to get a second one going, giving your creatures a monstrous +10/+10. Saprolings that can eat Inkwell Leviathans? That sounds like the work of a Beastmaster.

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