The first card I ever pre-ordered was Night of Souls’ Betrayal.
At the time, I was really excited about it shutting down Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Ravager…okay, maybe just Arcbound Ravagers still in the opponent’s hand, but if you could handle their remaining battlefield, the card was a near-lock. Those preordered Night of Souls’ Betrayals did good work for me back in some State Championship that is lost in the depths of the internet when I refused to play broken Ravager Affinity and instead sleeved up Oxidize and Death Cloud.
Later on, Night of Souls’ Betrayal has popped up as an occasional sideboard card in Modern. In the early days of the format it covered both Arcbound Ravager and Deceiver Exarch, allowing various control decks to stop Affinity and Splinter Twin, and had similar recurring roles covering Viscera Seer and other assorted nonsense through the years.
Curse of Death’s Hold reprised the effect years later in Innistrad and showed up as a crucial sideboard card multiple times, winning multiple Grands Prix. In the first year of its Standard lifespan the card shut down Delver of Secrets, Lingering Souls, and Snapcaster Mage to allow slower decks to just focus on Geist of Saint Traft and not the Equipment side of Azorius Delver. In its second year, Mardu and Abzan Aristocrats that leaned heavily on Lingering Souls, Blood Artist, and Falkenrath Aristocrat could be largely locked out by Curse of Death’s Hold.
I’ve heard almost zero buzz about Kaervek, the Spiteful, but given the history of this effect I expect it to be a key role player through its time in Standard. At the bare minimum, Kaervek, the Spiteful will live up to these cards’ legacies as a matchup-defining sideboard card.
At most? Kaervek is the kind of card that could shape which creatures are playable for an entire format.
Creatures Are Great
There’s a classic heuristic about putting narrow-ish reactive spells into your deck: don’t do it. You don’t sideboard in Surgical Extraction against incidental graveyard action. You wouldn’t put Engineered Plague in your deck if it just kills their Delver of Secrets.
But if the narrow-ish reactive card is also a reasonable creature, that’s a different story. If your graveyard hate is Scavenging Ooze and not Surgical Extraction, you often want it to mitigate Tarmogoyf or Snapcaster Mage. If the floor on your Engineered Plague is a three-mana 2/2 with deathtouch, you would absolutely bring in Plague Engineer against Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer. A creature is worth a card by virtue of attacking and blocking, and any game where you get the bonus from the effect lining up is a huge win.
Being a creature also lets you mitigate the things your Kaervek-vulnerable opponent will do to mitigate your Kaervek’s ability. Noncreature threats are either planeswalkers that are much less scary if you can attack them or clunkier artifacts or enchantments that are much less scary if you can attack your opponent.
See, the secret is that every permanent has loyalty like planeswalkers; it’s just that loyalty is your opponent’s life total. If your opponent loses the game, their Experimental Frenzy shuffles back into their deck!
As a minor note: Kaervek has a play pattern shared with Night of Souls’ Betrayal. A second Kaervek doubles as an Infest. Kaervek, the Spiteful is legendary so you can’t permanently stack multiples, but if you cast a second, they exist on the battlefield for a brief moment where state-based effects are checked. Along with the legend rule forcing you to choose one Kaervek and lose the other, toughness on all creatures is checked. Any two-toughness creatures will die, with your initial Kaervek living after briefly falling to a 2/1. It’s not as good as it would be if Kaervek wasn’t a legendary creature, but it’s not just a dead card in your hand.
Kaervek Hates Cats
You still need Kaervek to be killing something to make it worth playing. Are people actually playing one-toughness creatures these days?
Yes, and they are among the most important things to keep off the battlefield long-term. The one-toughness creatures people do play are the kind of recursive threats control decks struggle to handle, and they’re protected from exile removal via Witch’s Oven. Even if Jund Sacrifice only has Cauldron Familiar, that Cat is the key card fueling Trail of Crumbs and Mayhem Devil.
Emma Handy? Probably already spiteful about Kaervek crushing her graveyard-looping dreams.
Kaervek kills Valiant Rescuer and all the Human Soldier tokens it generates.
Even if Boros Cycling has become a bit of a joke, this is yet another case of Kaervek being a clean answer to the most problematic threat for a black deck.
The things Kaervek cleans up against Mono-Red Aggro are a bit less critical as one-drops have done some work by Turn 4, and it does die to Bonecrusher Giant, but it’s still an acceptable four-mana play in my book.
And good luck to anyone who was still trying to play Cavalcade of Calamity in the card’s Standard twilight days.
This is probably as good a time as any to point out Cauldron Familiar decks and Boros Cycling are notably light on ways to interact with Kaervek, but does it really matter if they have answers to it?
Imagine Kaervek was just Shriekmaw. If your opponent plays a removal spell on your Shriekmaw after you kill something with it, that has to be a win for you. You put Shriekmaw in your deck, you have to be planning on playing an attrition game. If your opponent just makes that exchange of another card for your Shriekmaw, that’s all you wanted, right?
Kaervek in these spots is just a Shriekmaw, but if they have any more one-toughness creatures they’re forced into that interactive exchange if they don’t want to get utterly dominated by the card.
Even in the worst-case scenario where Kaervek dies, it still did what you wanted it to do.
Kaervek also promises to be a check against some of the more impressive aggressive options coming out of Core Set 2021. Seasoned Hallowblade has everyone drawing Adanto Vanguard comparisons, even if it’s just a bit worse than that card, but my eye is on Selfless Savior. I don’t think we truly appreciated Benevolent Bodyguard in its era, but Dauntless Bodyguard certainly saw some play and Selfless Savior is in the same line as these cards and Giver of Runes or Spellskite. Notably Selfless Savior saves creatures from Shatter the Sky…but definitely not from Kaervek.
Kaervek, But Where-Vek
Even if Kaervek is powerful, I don’t know if it is the kind of card that will directly spawn new archetypes. More likely it will just play a role in existing ones, such as…
Sultai Midrange is currently the most successful Standard deck that might want Kaervek, since it meshes fairly well with the deck’s basic strategy. Kaervek is likely better than the last couple of sideboard sweepers, since a common issue with that number of sweepers against decks like Rakdos Sacrifice or Mono-Red Aggro is their late-game plans start ignoring them. It might even be worth considering a copy in some of the Extinction Event slots in the maindeck.
But Kaervek is only a small improvement here. If the most important thing was stabilizing your life total against Cauldron Familiar, you had Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath for that or Casualties of War to clean up Witch’s Oven.
Yet again, I find myself looking at a Shaheen Soorani deck. If anyone is happy about Kaervek, it has to be him.
Dimir is not a color combination best known for its ability to kill a Witch’s Oven. Even Ugin, the Spirit Dragon left your life total vulnerable to a stupid Cat. Kaervek is a game-changer here. It’s a solid card that provides significant coverage to something your deck has notable issues with. The fact it attacks and blocks helps protect your Narset, Parter of Veils, and the ability to wither away Castle Ardenvale tokens isn’t shabby either.
Maybe, just maaaybe, you could convince me to try a Grixis version of this deck due to Kaervek. All the things I said about protecting Narset apply to Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, and the +1 on that card being net two cards is still an underappreciated upside for a five-drop planeswalker.
Adventuring Into the Distant Future
Even with all those things lining up in Kaervek’s favor right now, I have even higher hopes for the card in the future.
Cauldron Familiar isn’t going anywhere. Throne of Eldraine has about seven different kinds of mistakes and only three of them are banned in Standard. Kaervek has a job to do keeping that Cat in line for another year.
But the other big thing waiting on the horizon is Zendikar Rising. To explain what that has to do with Kaervek, the Spiteful, you need to look at the sloppy joe of a set that was Battle for Zendikar. The common regret voiced by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) designers about that set is it called itself Zendikar but it wasn’t Zendikar, the set people remembered and loved.
Allies and landfall existed in Battle for Zendikar, but they weren’t Zendikar Allies or landfall. What do those mechanics look like in the original Zendikar set?
Some powerful one-toughness creatures.
There’s no guarantee Zendikar Rising looks exactly the same for these mechanics or even that both return, especially since they were both powerful in a way that created the “blocking isn’t allowed” Draft environment of Zendikar that many people disliked. But given a year of being willing to push things, I wouldn’t be shocked to see at least one of these patterns reprised with a aim to impact Standard.
And even if they don’t, I’m sure some playable 1/1 is going to make it to print, only to be cleaned up by Kaervek.