Breaking Through: Evaluating Unknown Formats- Alara Reborn
Alright, I’m back from two weeks off. School was kind of a beating this past week with 4 exams over the span of 8 days as well as 2 essays due in that time followed by a funeral that had me fly out to Chicago. But, I’m back so thank you all for waiting patiently by your refresh buttons. I had originally intended on writing about 5 Color Control this week, as it has infinite directions to take and yet only small subsets of those are currently being explored. However, with the looming Alara Reborn coming at full steam, writing about a format that will surely change, especially in the case of 5CC with some awesome prospects already in Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse, seems somewhat pointless. I will write about that when the time is appropriate, but for now I would like to look at the format to come. While I cannot say exactly what is going to happen with cards yet to be spoiled, there are more “generic” approaches to exploring an undefined format. With some of the following techniques and a little bit of luck, one can use the projected information to take a tournament by storm with revolutionary technology.
I should note now that there will be spoilers in this article and they are courtesy of the visual spoiler at magicthegathering.com and form the unofficial spoiler from MTGSalvation.com.
The biggest mistake players make in regards to looking at a new format comes when they evaluate individual cards. Too often do I see players write off a card because it is “obviously bad” with no testing to validate that opinion. Sure, there will be your Chimney Imps in every set, and for these, I offer you a pass on the testing, but for those cards that are either: A) Unique in effect (these cards have never been done before) or: B) Borderline playable (these cards are often worse than previous cards that had a similar effect but are not available for the format) you should really do yourself a favor and look at them twice.
Just about every card printed has an application in which it will shine. Most of the time, these applications themselves are not good enough to win tournaments which leads players to decide that a card used in that application is not good enough either. Once this assessment has taken place, players rarely go back and reevaluate a card when a new format arises. Sometimes, gems are found such as with the case of Glen-Elendra Archmage and Riptide Laboratory, but these are exceptions. I encourage you to actively pursue applying cards that you “like” or that seem “cool” from Alara Reborn into the metagame even when those around you are telling you that they suck. I won’t try to convince you that those cards will in fact become amazing all-stars but they very well could be. This is the case less than 10% of the time, so it is important to be vigilant and not give up on trying out new ideas after one or two of them end up badly.
The best way to find that one card that slipped through the cracks is through constant testing but even then, how do we know what cards to test? There is no set standard for picking the next breakout card, but there are a few guidelines that will move you into the right direction. First, find any card that generates a unique, never before done effect. This will knock out bad cards whose effects have been done before, been done better, and still have never seen tourney play. An example of an often done effect can be found in Soulquake:
Return all creatures in play and all creature cards in graveyards to their owners’ hands.
This style of card is not unique in anyway. Evacuation has been in the format for basically 100 years and maybe has seen play in 1 competitive deck during that time. Making it much harder to cast, much more expensive, a sorcery, and adding a weak extra ability will not all of a sudden jump it into pro tour winning strategies. The best application for this card would be in some type of Eternal strategy coupled with Dream Halls to return a bunch of dumped creatures back to your hand and also return the Palinchron or whatever back to your hand to generate a ton of mana. Still, that strategy seems pretty weak and isn’t even in one of the big tournament based formats. (I love Vintage and play it often but the Pro Tour hardly recognizes it as a format).
So now that an example of a non-unique effect has been given, let me switch sides to examine a unique effect, even one whose power may be questionable. These style of cards are always worth consideration as they have little basis to be compared too and even the brightest of theoretical minds make mistakes. I will go ahead and use the new kid on the block and the mechanic that is generating the most fuss. This is not a cop out on my part, because I truly feel as though this mechanic will change formats and therefore there is not enough that can be said about it.
Bituminous Blast 3RB
Cascade (When you play this spell, remove cards from the top of your library until you remove a nonland card that costs less. You may play it without paying its mana cost. Put the removed cards on the bottom in a random order.)
Bituminous Blast deals 4 damage to target creature
No the 4 damage is not unique in any way, but I would primarily like to focus on Cascade. Spells that cost four or five mana and deal 4 damage to just a creature have never been played in competitive constructed decks before…. Wait, there was Flametongue Kavu… and Ribbons of Night… hmm…. Alright well those cards only saw play because they generated card advantage and swung a game around, something that Bituminous Blast clearly lacks…Or umm…
You can see where I am getting to with this. The people that claim 4 damage to a creature is not constructed worthy are just wrong. Add in to the mix that this bad boy is an instant and can generate IMMENSE amounts of game swinging card advantage and you have yourself an awesome spell. Sure this can’t hit players but all that does is shift this from an aggro card to a control card which is the strategy that can best take advantage of the Cascade ability anyway. Cascade is awesome, and I for sure expect some weak Cascade spells and a few more powerful ones, but due to the unique ability of Cascade, each and every one of them should be tested.
Cascade offers so many options for deckbuilders that it really has me excited. Whether you would like to focus on some combo based aspect of the ability, or simply use it as a super cantrip, the ability offers you whatever you ask of it.
Obviously this set will have many more unique effects than we are traditionally accustomed to due to the larger design space that is opened up by an all gold set. It is for this reason that I anticipate the format changing drastically with the introduction of Alara Reborn. Alright, so those cards with unique effects have been explored and we have found a few keepers, but some cards weren’t unique. In fact, some cards were reprints or had commonly repeated effects like the previously mentioned Soulquake. Should we simply assess these cards based on their past game play? Absolutely not!
The most common problem with evaluating a card based on past performance is over estimating the impact of a card that appears to have merit. This is currently the case with Meddling Mage. Meddling Mage is basically being heralded as amazing due to its previous stride through competitive Magic. Yes, the card is good, I will not question that fact. But it is currently being over-hyped and I do not see it having a huge impact on the format. Meddling Mage strives in older formats due to the huge numbers of combo decks floating around and yet, if you examine standard, the closest deck to a combo deck is Swans, and it runs 8 Pyroclasm effects… Hardly the deck you expect Meddling Mage to shine against.
The issue with Meddling Mage in Standard is the immense amounts of like cards that exist. Let’s assume that Mage sees heavy play. Currently, it would HAVE to name Volcanic Fallout against 5CC or else simply be a victim of the heavily played sweeper. Now let us assume that naming Volcanic Fallout does actually hurts 5CC’s game plan a lot and they begin losing to decks like Bant etc. (A fact that I don’t think would occur due to spot removal etc, but it’s a hypothetical). 5CC just loses now, right? Surely there are no other playable sweepers in the format. Man, if only Wrath of God, Firespout, Jund Charm, Infest, or Pyroclasm existed. Oh that’s right, they do… and they all are exceptional sweepers. It does not hurt 5CC very much to diversify their Mass removal and run something like a 2 Wrath, 2 Fallout, 2 Jund Charm split. Heck, Jund Charm may even be a solid choice anyway as Mage surely goes into Reveillark based decks first and 5CC would like a versatile graveyard removal spell. So if 5CC still exists, expect some drastic changes in deck construction that lead to very subtle changes in game play and keep the deck winning.
The same can be said for spot removal with Terminate, Path to Exile, Bant Charm, Terror, Agony Warp, Incinerate, Flame Javelin, and on and on and on. Mage simply gets outclassed in this all tier 2 world that Magic has evolved into. Sure it will be amazing if a combo deck manages to rise up, and it will no doubt see heavy play in sideboards and make quite a few appearances in Reveillark strategies where it offers synergy, but it is hardly the powerhouse that is was during its first run.
My point is simply to not overestimate the power of cards based on past performance. Formats change, cards change, and cards become outclassed. For a real life example of this, just look at Troll Ascetic; a card that was played in nearly every single green deck during its Mirrodin Printing (mainly post Affinity bannings) and yet sees very little play now. Do not look at an undefined format as a sum of its parts, as it is much more than that. Every interaction changes what becomes viable and what doesn’t and to ignore these facts only leads to a mis-evaluation of a metagame.
That all said, there are some cards that justifiably bring forth memories of older cards and will likely live up to the legacy of those past cards. All I am suggesting is to not base your deck choices SOLEY on the legacy of past play, but rather to test your ideas. A card that will likely see play is Colossal Might.
Colossal Might RG
Target creature gets +4/+2 and gains trample until end of turn
This card obviously reminds many people of Predator’s Strike which saw a decent amount of play for its trample giving ability. I would assume on face value that the extra +1 to Power is worth the -1 to toughness and that this card should see some play, especially in block. You may ask why?… well that answer is simple, and her name is Elspeth. You see, we mentioned Colossal Might because Predator’s Strike was a fine card and this reminds us of it, but I actually think this will be better than strike was. In Block, Elspeth is dominant; basically on par with what Umezawa’s Jitte did in Kamigawa Block. Aggro decks have a hard time beating an Elspeth mainly due to its token making ability. There is so little good burn in the format that Aggro decks rely on attacking Planeswalkers a lot of the time, and Elspeth makes even the scariest of 5/4s for three just get chump blocked. With Colossal Might however, Elspeth’s little buddy is dying and the Planeswalker herself is likely taking 6-8 damage, putting her to shame. Yes as with any Aura or Pump spell, the possibility of a 2 for 1 from the opponent is scary, but people tap out often enough in this format that I still think Might is worth it.
Speaking of Elspeth brings up a good point and that is knowing the cornerstones of a format and evaluating cards based on their interaction with that cornerstone. Manriki-Gusari seems bad enough at a first glance, but in Kamigawa Block where Jitte ran rampant and only 4 Jittes were allowed in your 3 man teams, Gusari played a key role. Jitte was the defining card of that block, even with the the presence of Gifts Ungiven, and because Gusari was able to interact with Jitte on a positive and efficient level, it went from a strictly limited card to a block standout.
Even in an unknown format, we often know what that best or most dominant cards are going to be. Whether that was Jitte in Kamigawa Block, Cryptic Command and Bitterblossom in Lorwyn block, or Planeswalkers in Shards block, we can evaluate cards based on how they interact with the best and most played cards. So, besides Colossal Might, what cards interact either alongside, or antagonistically, with Planeswalkers?
Well, one such card that would see play even without the dominance of Walkers is Maelstrom Pulse. I talked about this card enough on the MTGCast special podcast so I will keep my remarks brief.
Maelstrom Pulse 1BG
Destroy target nonland permanent and each permanent that shares a name with that permanent
This card deals with Planeswalkers in an efficient manner and is a fine maindeck card even against foes without the newest card type in their 75. While Pulse would surely see play in just about any block format, it goes doubly so into this one due to those annoying little Walkers. Therefore, as a player who may be playing with Walkers, we can expect to need to run them in the full numbers, maxing them out at 4, and maybe even find some other ways to protect them. With ORing, Pulse, etc, Walkers will thankfully be kept in check for this block season.
Another sorcery that will surely be used to keep Planeswalkers in check is Thought Hemorrhage
Thought Hemorrhage 2RB
Name a nonland card. Target player reveals his or her hand. Thought Hemorrhage deals 3 damage to that player for each card with that name revealed this way. Search that player’s graveyard, hand, and library for all cards with that name and remove them from the game. Then that player shuffles his or her library.
This of course deals with Planeswalkers preemptively so as to never have to feel the effects of even one of their uses. The only issue with Hemorrhage is that it is ultimately less maindeckable than something like Maelstrom Pulse. This means looking ahead at the format, we can expect to see this in a lot of game 2s and 3s and can prepare for it accordingly. Small pieces of knowledge like this are what allow for one mage to get an edge over another in an undefined format. Figuring out not only what you will be going into battle with, but what you will be battling against allows for huge advantages.
I expect some often overlooked card like Swerve to see more play on the basis that countermagic is weak in this block, and Swerve offers an efficient answer to both Pulse and Hemorrhage. It is interactions like these that begin to shape the format to come. We can not stick to conventional wisdom when defining a format to ourselves when the pieces that make up that conventional wisdom are not present. In this case, we would traditionally pair counterspells with Planeswalkers to keep them active but we have no real standout countermagic. So, we must think outside of the box and this is where we start to stumble upon cards such as Swerve. We could have never even concluded that Swerve was an answer however without first defining the threats to our game plan. It is in this instance where studying as much reading material and game material as possible truly shows its merit.
The last element to defining an unknown format is to look at what the format currently has and to figure out what will most certainly not change with the addition of a new set. For Standard, we know that Cryptic Command, Bitterblossom, Figure of Destiny, Spectral Procession, and Noble Hierarch will still exist and will still have archetypes built around them. Therefore, if a new idea is similar but strictly inferior to one of these strategies, we can rule it out. Likewise, we can see what cards readily fit into existing archetypes. Remember that not every card must be the backbone of its own deck. Sometimes a cards perfect home already exists and it is foolish to force it into somewhere else.
Usually a card will have to be groundbreaking to define a new archetype anyway. For example, Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse are both extraordinary cards, but they hardly have the potential to spawn any new archetypes as they are just removal spells. They upgrade a decks strengths but do not make the deck itself. No one has even said they were playing Swords to Plowshares or Remand.dec even though these cards are most likely better than anything else in the deck with them. The exception here is Cascade spells of course as the ability is what we are building around and not the lines of actual text on the card.
Ultimately, exploration of new ideas is the best way to acquaint yourself with a new format. There are very few cards that jump off of the screen and into a deck in obviously apparent numbers. Even those cards that are sure to be staples may want to be seen in numbers less than 4. Just be sure to keep your eye out for those unique effects that have never been done before as they often are the sleepers waiting to be broken. Tarmogoyf, Reveillark, and Figure of Destiny were all very unique when they were printed and I think you may be familiar with their work.
To wrap this up I would like to go through a few cards that seem to have some potential to me.
Maelstrom Nexus WUBRG
The first spell you play each turn has Cascade
Any card that can generate card advantage is worth exploring and this one does a phenomenal job. I don’t know if it will find a home but that doesn’t mean people won’t try to find it one. This card reminds me a lot of Future Sight only it will generate more card advantage in the form of spells where as Future Sight nets you lands most of the time while occasionally getting a free spell or two. Definitely a card to watch out for!
Qasali Pridemage GW
Creature- Cat Wizard
1, Sacrifice Qasali Pridemage: Destroy target artifact or enchantment.
This guy is absolutely nuts and will see play in every single format. Thankfully he is only a common and should not get above about a buck in price. I cannot tell you how awesome this guy is with obvious shades of Watchwolf and Viridian Zealot, expect this guy to see both maindeck and sideboard play.
Sen Triplets 2WUB
Legendary Artifact Creature- Human Wizard
At the beginning of your upkeep, choose target opponent. This turn, that player can’t play spells or activated abilities and plays with his or her hand revealed. You can play cards from that player’s hand this turn.
I am not sure exactly where this guy deserves to go, but his effect is powerful enough that I think he deserves serious consideration. He basically acts as a more fragile, more powerful Mindslaver and at worst is a one-sided Dosan the Falling Leaf. I can’t say if he will ultimately make it to the top tables of any big tournament but he very well could be a breakout star. His mana cost is a bit prohibitive but hopefully he can overcome that.
There are obviously plenty of other cards that have me excited but I want to save some to talk about on Monday Night Magic this week.
Alright that’s it for now. This set really has me excited as it appears to have a very large density of unique and powerful effects. I think the set is shaping up to be a deckbuilders dream and am really looking forward to designing some stuff for Pro Tour Honolulu and Grand Prix Seattle. Next week we should have the full spoiler and I will be talking about implications for this set in Standard to being the road to regionals. In addition, I should be getting in some drafts with this set at the Prerelease and will report any initial findings from there. Please send any deck ideas or card thoughts to me via email or in the comments section below and I will try to comment on them and give some feedback. I hope everyone has a blast at their Prereleases this weekend! Until next time, TRA LA LA, I’m out.
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