Flavor Fail: Batterskull

Last weekend, Grand Prix: Providence showcased the Legacy format on a grand stage. It was an opportunity for masters across the country to put all of their brewing and testing into action, with thousands of dollars the reward for successfully cracking the format. So what was the breakout deck of the tournament, the new tech that would add a twist to this dynamic format?

Seriously? Caw-Blade?

My heart sank when I heard about Owen Turtenwald’s undefeated Day 1 run with a deck sporting the dynamic Standard duo of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. I have just recently gotten into Legacy to take a break from the current monotonous Standard format, and now it seems that Standard’s strongest cards have become some of the strongest cards in the history of the game. The reason for Stoneforge’s emergence in Legacy is the new mythic living weapon from New Phyrexia. Batterskull is a ridiculous card on so many levels that I think it’s worthy of some examination. It gives aggressive decks an extremely hard time as a Baneslayer Angel on turn three, and provides control decks with powerful inevitability as a Blinking Spirit. You can find any number of other articles, comments, and forum posts complaining about Batterskull’s power level. While you’ll have to wait for Vorthos Wednesday for our hard-core flavor nuts, I believe the most offensive thing about Batterskull is the total disconnect between its abilities and its flavor, and that’s what I’m taking a look at today.

So, first of all, what is Batterskull? Well, it’s an artifact equipment, and from the name we can infer that it is a battering ram that either uses a skull in some fashion or is designed for use against skulls. As a living weapon, it must be able to move under its own power in some way. Leave the rules alone for now—we’ll get back to that—and take a look at the art:

Now, it’s a Phyrexian monstrosity, so it takes a bit of stretching to see a battering ram in there, but it looks like the head of the ram is that . . . big tooth on the left with . . . other teeth . . . growing out of it. Ahem. I imagine that bony protrusion at the front is the eponymous skull. You can see it knocking those warriors aside as it rushes from right to left across the picture, and it’s being driven forward by the centipede legs on the right. A human-looking head, ribs, and spinal column protrude from the top, which is, I imagine, what the germ token represents, a kind of pilot for this unstoppable land-based torpedo. So, we have a bony battering ram stuck to the front of a giant, monstrous, armored centipede, piloted by a humanoid carcass and pictured mid-charge, knocking its enemies aside.

Let me pull on my historian’s hat for a minute. A battering ram is a basic siege weapon, used in ancient and medieval warfare by foot soldiers attempting to breach the defensive wall of a town or castle. At its most basic, it is the trunk of a tree, carried and swung by a team of men. More advanced rams would have fire-hardened or metal-encased heads, be mounted on wheels, be hung from a frame, be drawn back by a winch, and/or be protected by a defensive superstructure that would deflect the defender’s counterattacks and protect the men attending the ram. Whatever improvements were made to it, the ram still had but one purpose—to destroy the enemy’s defenses and open a way for the attackers into the defended town. We can see these characteristics reflected by Batterskull in its bony head and its charging motion in the artwork.

But Batterskull isn’t the first of its kind to be represented on a card. In the distant past of Antiquities, there was an artifact creature—there was no equipment in those days—imaginatively named Battering Ram. You may not be able to instantly recall its rules text, as it isn’t the sort of constructed powerhouse that every player is familiar with, but it is rather flavorful. It’s a 1/1 creature, so pretty ineffectual on its own, but it is able to attack as part of a band—for players not familiar with Banding, this essentially means it can team up with your other creatures. Any wall that blocks the Battering Ram is destroyed at the end of combat, which is why you’d have a battering ram in the first place—to destroy your enemy’s walls.

Batterskull, on the other hand, is an equipment, which is fair enough—this is a far more suitable card type for a ram, and if the Antiquities version were to be redone, I’m sure it would be an equipment rather than a banding artifact creature. It’s a Living Weapon, meaning you don’t need to equip it after you play it, as it is able to operate under its own power. The further you get down the card, however, the more disjointed the flavor of the card becomes.

Equipped creature gets +4/+4 . . .

Huh? A battering ram is designed for destroying walls, which usually have high toughness, so the power boost I can take. But a +4 toughness? This is one of the largest power/toughness boosts ever found on an equipment. Equipping Batterskull to a creature that wouldn’t die without its help (a 0/1 or larger, in other words) gives you a monster bigger and tougher than Air Elemental, Cyclops Gladiator, or Battlegrace Angel, all from a giant centipede with big teeth that sprout other teeth. Presumably, the equipped creature sits in the top bit where the torso is, and it is covered in armored plates, but a Grizzly Bears driving a Batterskull can take down an Inferno Titan in a straight-up fight.

. . . and has Vigilance . . .

Buh? Vigilance? A battering ram is an offensive weapon designed with the single purpose of destroying defensive walls, not destroying-walls-and-then-returning-to-defend-the-Commander. I’m imagining the Batterskull as a kind of Phyrexian go-cart, zooming forward to knock down the Mirran defenses, then pulling a handbrake turn to get back in time to defend the Praetors from a counterattack. What kind of creatures have Vigilance? Steadfast Guard is a fine example, always ready to defend his master. Alert Shu Infantry is rather unsubtle, but gets the point across. Bladed Sentinel. Captain of the Watch. Nimble and protective creatures have Vigilance, not sluggish, single-minded engines of destruction. Rather than Vigilance, I think Batterskull should have had “must attack each turn” in the style of Juggernaut, because what else is a battering ram for?

. . . and Lifelink.

Guh? Lifelink? I can’t for the life of me figure out how this siege weapon restores its controller’s life force. Lifelink is a defensive ability; it prevents you from dying. It’s generally found on angels, monks, and other holy creatures. A battering ram is an offensive weapon. Lifelink does appear on some Vampire creatures, however, like Child of Night, to represent the draining effect of the vampire’s bite—perhaps that’s what the teeth-on-teeth are for? Trample makes far more sense for a battering ram than Lifelink, as breaking through defenses is what they do.

{3}: Return Batterskull to its owner’s hand.

Now I know development is having a laugh. What about an animated battering ram suggests that it can be removed from the battlefield and then returned at its original strength? This “blinking” ability is usually found on illusion or spirit creatures, things with an etherealness that allows them to evade the opponent’s attacks. It’s also found on the almighty battle wizard, Arcanis the Omnipotent. Here, it lets you not only protect your lumbering centipede siege weapon from artifact removal, but if the germ token is destroyed, you can simply bounce and replay Batterskull for a fresh one. Paired with the activated ability on Stoneforge Mystic, you can rebuy Batterskull at instant speed for a mere {4}{W}.

The massive amount of barely related rules leaves no room for flavor text, so we have no additional explanation for this defensive siege weapon, able to both attack and defend while healing its controller and evading removal spells in the manner of an illusion or master wizard—leaving aside the obvious balance issues that have seen this card, in combination with Stoneforge Mystic, dominate Standard and most probably every other format. As a standalone card, it is a complete flavor failure. Fortunately, we have only to wait until October for this combination to be broken up in Standard—barring any potential bannings—but thanks to Batterskull’s bizarre and extremely powerful combination of abilities, Stoneforge Mystic is sure to take her place alongside Dark Confidant as one of the most powerful 2-drops in the history of the game.