G/R Atarka Ramp. No, not that Atarka, I’m talking about Atarka, World Render.
From a format that looked to be dominated by Abzan Control and G/R Devotion last week, things sure look wide open. Even more so when you realize so few of the build-around-me cards from Magic Origins have been explored.
Literally just looking at the Mythics alone, there is so much untapped potential. We finally saw Liliana, Heretical Healer and Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh match the success of Nissa, Vastwood Seer and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy from Week One. What about Kytheon, Hero of Akros? What about Day’s Undoing, a card that had a brief showing in TurboFog in Chicago and has seen no play since? Or Demonic Pact and Erebos’s Titan, two cards that Ali Aintrazi championed briefly at an IQ? Or even something as silly as just playing Archangel of Tithes as a card with a good rate? Or any of the other six Mythics that has yet to see a big showing in any fashion?
The same applies to Limited with this set. When does Ghirapur Aether Grid start becoming an attractive card? What about Undead Servant or Faerie Miscreants? Can you build a deck with enough Elves for Sylvan Messanger?
Except there are constraints. Having a lot of cards to work with also increases the power level of the known competition.
At its core, Magic is a game of resources. Traditionally we list these off in terms of one countable currency being exchanged for another: life, on-board power, cards or mana. In practice, these spill out into larger categories that describe the more intangible advantages you are buying with them. Things like tempo, card quality, card advantage, pure trump value, or inevitability.
Before we dive into any fresh brews, we should explore what we are actually trying to do with them. What angles, what resources, what concepts are we attacking? Most importantly, what are other decks trying to do?
Tempo is a resource based on how many game actions you can perform in a set amount of time. The primary ways of gaining tempo are playing two spells in a timeframe where your opponent only does one thing or trading spells while getting in attack damage.
In Standard, one specific card comes to mind when I talk about tempo: Elvish Mystic. What that card does is absurd. You aren’t necessarily casting two cards in a turn, but on the play you are casting two relevant spells before your opponent can play a relevant answer or get to play your specific threats before their specific answer comes online. The threats in Standard are tightly tiered by cost, and Elvish Mystic breaks that wide open.
There is also tempo involved with how the red decks interact with the other creature decks. It feels like the larger rreen creatures should be able to brick the little red dorks, but in practice they are just too far behind before they start hitting the board. You get on board on turn one, trade up a Lightning Strike for a Deathmist Raptor, and every turn after that you just making exchanges while you’re slightly ahead and quickly chip your opponent to death.
Gods Willing is the other big tempo play of the format. If Heroic can build a big creature, most things that kill it cost three or more. You can often trade your one-mana answer of Gods Willing, Stubborn Denial, or Ajani’s Presence for your opponent’s entire turn, giving you plus one attack and another whole turn to increase your creature size, creature count or to further reduce the number of turns they get to spend on answers, most of which will just get trumped again for one mana.
Abzan Control is the anti-tempo, and that is how it loses most games: you are playing one spell a turn until around turn six. If your opponent gets ahead and isn’t brick-walled by Siege Rhino or Languish, it is really hard for you to pull back to parity. The struggle for a good two-drop so that you can do things earlier and start recovering ground in the midgame defines when Abzan goes from solid to great. Bile Blight, Ultimate Price, Sylvan Caryatid, and Fleecemane Lion have all seen play in this role, but it’s always a big subgame of figuring out which is currently good.
In Magic Origins Limited, tempo is a key part in every game. There are a large number of cards that play better from ahead. The highlight of this is the Renown mechanic, which gives you a concrete permanent advantage for being ahead in one combat, but there are a lot of other cards that have similar effects. The removal is also all able to exchange for mostly anything, but only at cost parity. It’s hard to deploy a Suppression Bonds and play another spell in the same turn, but it’s easy to Suppression Bonds right through a blocker and get in your free attack as tempo’s gains.
When your goal is to leverage tempo, the big question is always when your fuse burns out. How do you keep up the assault when faced with a Siege Rhino or a Languish? Do you actually kill your opponent before you have used all of your life or cards trying to steal the race? If not, you need to reconsider if what you are doing actually generates enough of an advantage to win the game.
Card advantage in Standard comes mostly in the realm of U/B. Dig Through Time, get an answer and a Dig Through Time. Dig Through Time again, get an answer and a Dragonlord’s Prerogative. Prerogative, draw a land, two answers, and a threat. Each turn you are simply adding more and more cards to your hand.
Abzan Megamorph is another deck that wins by burying people in card advantage. +1 off an Abzan Charm, +1 off Den Protector, +1 every time you get back Deathmist Raptor. The death of non-green midrange has been caused by the fact that Abzan just exchanges cardboard over and over until it is left with their something to your nothing because of these small advantages.
There aren’t a lot of sources of card advantage in Magic Origins Limited. It’s not possible to chain off card advantage spells like it was back in Magic 2014. Card advantage is mostly gained in combat by attacking with something big enough to double block. As with draw spells, the key is being able to repeat this. A pure “Dinosaurs”-style plan when you only play creatures big enough to require two for ones to begin with struggles to keep up, but if you have a trick to break up their double block you can run back the same attack the next turn and “chain” Giant Growth-shaped two-for-ones.
When you win via card advantage, you still have to be drawing cards that matter. If you draw three cards then have to throw them all away to beat just one of your opponent’s cards, that is not card advantage. The same is true if you draw the cards and then lose with two of them still unspent in your hand. Don’t durdle: you need to actually use your extra cards to get into resource fights you are winning.
You play a 2/2. I play a 4/4. You play another 2/2. I play a 5/5. You might have the same number of things, but mine are just better across the board.
This is really Abzan’s bread and butter. Siege Rhino is the king of the four drops. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is the queen of the high end. Hero’s Downfall just kills it dead. Card for card, Abzan just does more.
Abzan Aggro is even further down this road. Fleecemane Lion is just bigger than every other two-drop. Anafenza, the Foremost is just bigger than every other three-drop. Siege Rhino again is just the biggest game in town. When it curves out, the game is just over. The reason Languish is such a big blow to the deck is not that it beats these starts but because it negates the fact that each of Abzan Aggro’s high-quality low-end cards levels up in the late game to fight outside its weight class. A Monstrous Fleecemane Lion isn’t unkillable and a Rakshasa Deathdealer takes twice as much mana to keep alive.
Card quality was a huge part of Dragons of Tarkir Limited, but being able to out-card quality someone in Magic Origins Limited is a little harder. For the most part all of the two-drops across all of the colors are similar in size. Same with the threes. And the fours, and the fives, and the sixes. The removal, tricks, and prospects of double blocking while only losing one creature are good enough to erase most of the small advantages that come up.
When cards scale up in quality, there is usually a cost in mana associated with it. Sometimes it is in pure number, sometimes it is in difficulty to cast. Regardless, you need to be able to absorb the resulting cost associated with it. The payment is usually in tempo, either life in painland mana or time it takes to set up to land your threat, but occasionally there are hidden costs like losing access to other powerful cards or answers. If raw card quality is how you plan on winning, confirm you aren’t going to get run over and can access things that handle all of the big threats you plan on facing that match or exceed your above-par card power setpoint.
The old Cruel Ultimatum. There’s always something at the top of the food chain, and sometimes it just isn’t touchable. You can be a bit behind at previous points, then your best card comes down and suddenly nothing that happened before matters.
In Standard, the top of the heap has been Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Dragonlord Atarka, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Each of these cards towers over everything below it. Elspeth might even be a tier below the other two, but its significance in trumping everything just below that is not something you can ignore.
The relative newcomer to this class is Rally the Ancestors. This card was often referenced as a joke when it was first released, but had some real power once all the pieces came together. With Ray Tautic’s win this weekend at the Open Series in Richmond following Matthew Tickal’s breakout performance with the deck a week before in Chicago, it’s clear that Nantuko Husk was the missing piece of the puzzle for this deck. Rally the Ancestors is often lethal through any board state, and even for small graveyards it builds up to a finishing Rally very quickly via Grim Haruspex.
Magic Origins is a lot closer to Magic 2013 than Magic 2010 in terms of how good the really good cards are. It says a lot that Whirler Rogue might be in the top ten most powerful cards in the set. The best uncommons are fairly comparable to the best rares, meaning that most decks have access to a trump that stands up to their opponent’s. Pia and Kiran Nalaar might be better than Knightly Valor, but it’s not out of the question for the two of them to duke it out and have the uncommon come out on top. Similar to the more stock commons and uncommons, it’s hard for your trump to be reliably better than your opponent’s. Again we see more gameplay focused around exchanges and positioning than raw cards.
If you are leveraging a high-card trump to win, you better be damned sure it wins you the game. If it doesn’t win you the game on the spot, the rest of your deck better make up the difference in another fashion. This was a big issue with a lot of our early version of Dragonlord Atarka decks post-Dragons of Tarkir. They would plan an Atarka and wipe their opponent’s board sometimes, but if they couldn’t leverage the enters-the-battlefield trigger, the rest of their cards were hard-pressed to win a game. Don’t fall into the same trap of doing something big that isn’t always lethal without a backup plan.
This can sometimes be tied to the high-card concept, and somewhat to card advantage, but whatever the method is the idea remains the same. Given the time, I will find or do something that overrides or outlasts anything you can present.
In Standard inevitability is often a bit of a lost art, but it comes into play with the Abzan against U/B Control matchup. You would think that at some point the control deck would dominate, but in practice it struggles to handle Abzan’s eventual endgame. Given enough time, Abzan will draw all of its Den Protectors. It will resolve one and get back a previous one. U/B can throw answers at it, but unless they stop it on the stack they will slowly run out of things in hand or in their library that can stop the 3/2 onslaught. U/B has threats, but they are all relatively easy to line up with a Hero’s Downfall. There are only so many counterspells in the U/B deck, and each one of them has to line up with a Den Protector. When you start factoring in Thoughtseize and Duress, you start realizing this is a monumental task for a control deck to accomplish.
The traditional application of inevitability in Limited has to do with saving removal. If your opponent has one Serra Angel and you have one Doom Blade for it, that is the trade you have to make. You can’t spend it on anything else, as if they survive to draw the Serra Angel it will kill you if you don’t kill it.
In Magic Origins Limited there is a bit of this, but because all of the threats are interchangeable it’s easier to make exchanges. You also have a Serra Angel to block theirs on top on the Doom Blade, and they have the same thing. You also each have a different threat that is about the same as the Angel, another universal kill spell, and so on. You are trying to line up your answers with big threats as much as possible, but there’s more wiggle room depending on your draws. You can use your Suppression Bonds early to generate a life discrepancy if you can afford to trade large threats later.
If you are leaning on inevitability, you need to be able to handle all of the corner cases. You need to know you can’t use your Thoughtseizes early because you need to clear Hero’s Downfalls later so you can stick an Ugin that will handle three of their threats while lining up your counters with these other four. If you guess wrong on the intricate cogs, you need to run your Rube Goldberg Machine or everything will fall apart very quickly.
While Magic Origins offers a lot of exciting content for Standard and a new Limited format to explore, there are a lot of established things standing in the way. Limited has fairly straightforward Core Set battles, while Constructed is populated with several heavily-tuned decks that have already proven their place in the format. If you want to try something new and exciting like TurboFog in Standard or mono-Undead Servants in Draft, you need to know what you are trying to accomplish.
What core concepts are you leveraging to win?
If you are competing with a deck inside its own wheelhouse, how are you coming out ahead? Are you actually better at tempo than they are, do you have better cards or a bigger trump, maybe even an eventual endgame that outclasses them? Or do you have to shift to fight them on a different axis?
If you are playing across different resources, like card advantage against tempo, how are you negating their resource gain and stopping them from doing the same to you? Do you have ways to keep up the tempo through a sweeper, or to kill them before their inevitability engine comes online?
Do what you do for a reason. Cool ideas are what sparks innovation, but precise thought-out decisions are what divides the flops from the successes.