The dripping sweat and spattered blood glistened in the morning sun. It was unseasonably cool for this time of year near Kazandu, but the lower temperature wasn't something Garren was cursing: fighting the near constant stream of things was tough enough, and heat would only complicate rest rotations and add to the overall weariness of his men.
The hillock was littered with otherworldly corpses, each dappled in pale hues from across the rainbow as well as those of too many of his own men. Though stripping his fallen of whatever was salvageable was a gruesome task, every sword, shield, and piece of armor available was needed. Rumor circulated through the camp of far more powerful things that could turn very real mean into nothing but dust.
The current lull in battle was a welcome chance to regroup. Repairing and entrenching further what defenses had been set was a priority—supporting his archers and the few kor hookmasters he had available would be vital going forward. Fewer and fewer answered the call for support, while just as many continued to die throughout the week. While leaving the defensible position adjacent to Kazandu wasn't ideal, staying to the last defender was both suicidal and foolish. Buying time would have to be good enough.
But there was never enough time.
The halting screech that echoed out was both a new and terrifying sound. As if Kamsa herself was punishing him, something new was out there. The familiar rumble of the approaching onslaught caught his attention next.
"To arms! Form up!" Garren called out. The notching of arrows and scrambling armor-clad soldiers was a sore sight—it was never a pleasant thought that some of them would not survive.
The first wave of them rounded into sight. "Hold your fire!" Garren commanded, "Wait until the very last moment!" The reminder may not have been needed, but his confident voice would reassure those who were becoming increasingly skittish.
The atonal, awkward grunts and shrieks grew in intensity as they approached. Just before they were to crash into the first line of defenders, Garren shouted "Fire!" and a volley of arrows arced out from behind him. Many of the creatures stumbled as their legs and heads were riddled with arrows. Those that avoided such debilitating hits met men eager to put them down as quickly as possible. The first wave was handled, but it was just the beginning. More could be seen streaming towards the valiant point. The higher ground was certainly useful to defend, but it provided a look out farther than he would want anymore: it was clear that this was the biggest push yet.
Yet something was amiss. Something was making the swarming mass part. Something moving faster than those already charging. Something that was much larger and menacing. Something, a stranger creature among the already foreign and strange creatures, was coming.
"Hookmasters! Prepare the lines!" Garren cried over the din of fighting. Whatever It was had to be restrained as soon as It reached their position. It didn't take long to get there. It was an eerily silent thing, tall and thick. It looked far different from everything they had been fighting, but Garren hoped it was just size that differentiated them.
"Bring it down!" he pleaded more than ordered, as the hookmasters loosed their weighted volleys of grappling chain. Wrapping about the monstrosity, the hooks took hold and, as one, the kor pulled It forward and toppled It to the ground. Just as a few men jumped at the opportunity to stab, It blasted what could only be described as a growl, lashing out with an arm left unfettered. Wind whipped away from the attack, and the two soldiers who didn't dive away fell to their knees and collapsed despite not being physically struck.
While Garren had never seen much of what he experienced over the past few days, that was certainly unique. Another volley of arrows leaped out at the struggling thing, digging deap into the folds of Its flesh. Just as Garren was about to order more hooks he saw movement. Not that of any of them, but of his men who had dropped moments ago. Breathing a sigh of relief that, perhaps, fewer would perish today than he had thought, he allowed himself a small smile.
The two men stood up and turned, not to move back into a more defensive position or to strike at the thing ignoring them, but to strike out with blades at their nearest comrades. Stunned and surprised, the line that had been about to strike again scattered away, backpedaling away from their former friends. It snapped many of the binding chains as another blast of otherworldly power lashed out. More men fell, and Garren, with creeping horror, realized today was already lost. There was no more time. There was no place hide from these things. More of his men rose up and joined them.
The head turned its gaze to and fro, jointed arms working quickly and chaotically to annihilate any semblance of defense. Arrows were not sufficient to cut It down. Chains could not restrain It. And yet, in the strangest twist, death was not a surety—It could make you rise again.
With shaking hands, Garren drew his own blade. Polished and honed, it was meant to protect those who needed protection. But at that moment, in that grim reality of forced servitude to that crushing force, he knew that the one who most needed protection was himself. With a swift, if awkward, motion, he cut his own throat. Falling to the ground, choking on his own life, he ventured another, final smile. It was surely with one less convert to use to terrorize.
The soldier next to Garren watched the suicide. The shock of seeing the most stalwart among them take his own life was nearly unbearable. But what was truly surreal was when Garren rose again.
"Commander?" the solder dared to ask. The question was answered only with a swift turn and a blade being plunged deep through his heart. Eyes glazed, transfixed at some point far away, Garren was Garren no more.
The defended hillock became an utter bloodbath.
The past few weeks have shown up many of the strange Eldrazi. The set's namesake creatures come with massive offensive potential in the form of annihilator, as well as many more unusual abilities. While the greatest among them give you four cards or an extra turn just for casting them, others have more refined or narrow abilities. Yet each one has its unique perks.
Mundane cards like lands can come in various flavors, providing different benefits. Consider Glacial Fortress, Sejiri Refuge, and Celestial Colonnade: each provides white and blue mana, but each comes with a different perk (Fortress potentially starting out untapped; Refuge bumping your life up by one; Colonnade providing a sizable flying body). What makes you choose one over another? It's a simple answer: You grab the one that gives you what you want.
So the real question I've been asking myself is this: which Eldrazi is the one I'm going to want the most? I've seen the three big ones (Emrakul, Kozilek, and Ulamog) and many of their lesser companions. But these haven't hit me where I really feel it yet (although taking an extra turn is pretty appealing). Gleemax, lord of spoiler assignment (and everything else), took note and elected to tease me with an Eldrazi that would be truly inspiring, an Eldrazi so epic it's unforgettable yet not so over-the-top that everyone is watching for it all the time, a twisted combination of Eldrazi awesomeness with a splash of something darkly delightful. It hits every one of the things that I love about Magic in a tidy twelve-mana package.
Which one? Oh, you haven't seen
Just looking at it would bring tears to my eyes if I wasn't so terrified on so many levels. It's not that I'm unhappy to see It, but there is an alarm siren going off in my head, a droning warning against using its power. The Eldrazi are not to be mastered or controlled, bargained or reasoned with. Their power reached far beyond expectations. I shouldn't meddle with thing so great.
Actually, you know what? Let's just forget it and put everything on the line. I can't resist the lure of everything I want packed into just one card.
I won't pretend that I can create dominion over the Eldrazi. But pointing the weapons of mass destruction in the direction I prefer is always a great option if it's available. It That Betrays is like the other Eldrazi and has annihilator, giving it the ability to make the designated defending player sacrifice permanents. But it's that other section of the text box that makes It so much more:
When the Eldrazi come for your opponents, it will be It That Betrays (and in turn, you) that reaps the true benefits of the widespread destruction. Sacrificing permanents will be a common occurrence when dealing with Eldrazi, which is a great flavor tie to their long-lost slaves on Zendikar, the Vampires.
It's been a while since I came up with a mean mono-black deck that I've been itching to build. Butcher of Malakir was a great firestarter for my engine, but it's It That Betrays that adds a shot of nitrous to the show. Cabal Coffers—or an Expedition Map that can grab one—will supercharge your black mana levels and provide a gateway to dropping the big guys earlier than your opponents would expect. The variety of sacrifice effects against creatures not only clears away pesky blockers (like last week's troublesome Transcendent Master) but serve double duty as recruitment once the Eldrazi come to play. Butcher of Malakir serves not only as a Grave Pact effect but as a flying finisher should something happen to It. Breeding Pit and Spawning Pit can help provide disposable creatures as well as a place to sacrifice things and trigger your Grave Pact effects once It That Betrays is online. One of my favorite lands cards, Phyrexian Tower, even serves a dual purpose: accelerate up to It That Betrays as well as providing yet another way to sacrifice creatures when It is out.
While I'm sure that this deck will be a, well, different type of multiplayer choice, it isn't surprising that a black deck would make everyone cough up the creatures on the battlefield. It's sort of a black-mana type of thing to do. The real kick to It That Betrays is that it works for ANY nontoken permanent. Let's take a quick jaunt down ways to make It That Betrays make even more things betray their masters.
World Queller isn't just for subtle controlling ambitions anymore, it's a factory for feeding It That Betrays. Need creatures? Get one from every other player. How about some lands? Even with just one opponent you get a free land ramp. But you know what's especially brutal? Planeswalkers. How about getting a free Sorin Markov, Gideon Jura, or Garruk Wildspeaker? Pretty. Awesome.
If World Queller is a selective way to feed your terror from the Blind Eternities, Balance is like bringing it to a buffet. While playing fair will probably ensure you're doing some of your own sacrificing, you can always tip the scales in your favor with something like a Zuran Orb or Claws of Gix to ensure you're the one to benefit the most. As a cautionary note, sacrificing all of your lands and creatures (except for It That Betrays) before playing Balance (or the all-in-one package of Cataclysm) may make you unpopular among your friends—you have been warned.
Twisted Justice is an oft-forgotten card—until it's cast when you have only one awesome creature on the battlefield. Drawing cards and netting a great creature seems like a much sweeter deal. Barrin's Spite, or its deeply red ancestor Retribution, is in a similar vein but handles creatures with slightly more finesse. If you want to be flavorful while you're wreaking havoc with the Eldrazi, try using a Mindslaver before playing Barrin's Spite. This may also reduce your friend count by at least one.
I'm not the biggest fan of combos, but something about pairing Bronze Bombshell, It That Betrays, and the repeatable almost-Donate effect of Bazaar Trader feels like something out of a B-Movie. A cursed gift you can't get rid of, repeatedly coming back and hurting you no matter what you do—all of it caused by a horrific, nightmarish, otherworldly monster. The difference is that you can bring the "Nightmare on Zendikar" to life for your friends.
Curse of the Cabal is a splashy threat to opponents, but it's normally manageable in a multiplayer game since somebody will inevitably just toss a throw-away permanent to keep the time counters flowing. It That Betrays disregards those thoughts and instead makes the decision to add time counters much more difficult. No longer is something being thrown away, but instead given to you. And if Curse of the Cabal actually goes off ....
If you're into Jund—black, red, and green—shenanigans, Destructive Flow and Earthlink turn It That Betrays into a steady stream of lands. Destructive Flow will pick up anything from Reliquary Tower to Tolarian Academy or Bayou, and Earthlink makes the dismal prospect of blocking an Eldrazi even more chilling.
While giving tokens to your opponent with Mercy Killing isn't necessary the most synergistic interaction with It That Betrays, there is nothing merciful about taking their best creature for a meager three mana.
Whether you're giving the most cruel of ultimatums or asking Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker to do it for you, the power of making your opponent sacrifice a permanent (or seven!) is a haughty proposition. Even the supremely self-confident Bolas would be a bit perturbed by a creature that steals everything he forces an opponent to sacrifice. Living the dream is a good place to be. Alternatively, you can skip the elder dragon planeswalker's presence but keep his charming color combination by turning to Thraximundar. Pair it with It That Betrays, and you have a marriage of offensive potential with repeated creature theft just for swinging in. They're such a cute couple.
The Eldrazi's Out of the Prison
So I've shown you some of the things that grab at me about It That Betrays. Either the Eldrazi have already taken control of me, or I just love the unadulterated power of these things from beyond. But what are the Eldrazi whispering in your ear (or crushing into your soul)? What do you see when you gaze into the undeath that is It That Betrays? As I've done the previous two weeks, I challenge you to show me your best It That Betrays deck by this Thursday night. If you want some bonus points, try making a Singleton deck—that is, no more than one copy of each card other than basic lands. If you're dabbling in EDH, you may want to take a close look again at the Visual Spoiler - any card you pick up at this weekend's Prerelease Events is legal to use in EDH (and any other format you play with your friends) right away! Or you can just go for awesome adventures in a very changed Zendikar. Either way it'll be a hoot!
That's it for this week—oh, I'm forgetting something! Right, right ... the Transcendent Master deck. You wanted to see what readers cooked up? There were quite a few Sanguine Bonds or Felidar Sovereigns into lifelink clerics, Transcendent Master among them, and even a few deck builders who were so bold as to go for the arbitrarily large life combo of Shaman en-Kor, Starlit Sanctum, and Daru Spiritualist. While it's not a new concept either, the deck that I think best shared some insight into Transcendent Master is one of a few I received along a similar vein.
Andrew K.'s submission includes some fast mana and interesting interactions with Gilder Bairn. Here's what he had to say:
The idea of the deck is to ramp into Doubling Season or Gilder Bairn, and then start doing awesome things with counters, including those of the level-up flavor. The Bairn lets you "level-up" as well as skip lots of levels at instant speed. Doubling Season makes your levels go twice as fast (and makes Gilder Bairn even more ludicrous!). Springleaf Drum and Glare of Subdual give you ways to tap the Bairn besides attacking, and the Drum also helps ramp you, while Glare keeps you alive. Enlightened Tutor fetches the Glare and Doubling Season, as well as the 1-of Riptide Replicator, in case you reach a critical mass of mana with nothing to sink it into, or just want to plunk it down for X = 4, then double it ten or so times. Your choice!
In addition to the Master as a leveler, I also included Kazandu Tuskcaller. His level-up ability is good on its own, but if you have a Doubling Season out, you get twice the Elephants! Gideon and Elspeth also make an appearance, as loyalty can also be doubled. Elspeth goes ultimate as soon as she hits play if you have the mana and a Bairn, and Gideon can go to 8, have it doubled, then force your opponent to swing at a quite stout 16-loyalty 'walker.
The best part about these level-up guys is that even if your opponent disrupts the combos, you have enough mana ramp to do things the old fashioned way if you have to.
I like your style, Andrew. While the Master is fearsome, there's quite a selection of tasty things to double the counters on—all of which make for some crazy games.
With the Eldrazi madness almost upon us, are you prepared for what they are bringing? I know I am.
If I survive my encounters with the great prisoners of Zendikar, I'll see you next week!